Veteran Folk Singer Tom Paxton Cuts to the Heart of Gun Debate

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Tom Paxton

A new video of “What If, No Matter” arrives in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. mass shootings.

Folk singer Tom Paxton, 80, whose songs have chronicled six decades of change and struggle, walked on stage to sing Friday (Feb. 23) in New York’s East Village and told his audience simply:

“I’d like to begin with a question.”

What if, no matter how angry he was,

How outraged he was,

How furious he was,

What if, no matter how angry he was,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun?

After the massacre of 17 people at at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Paxton has reintroduced his 2011 song “What If, No Matter” during his ongoing tour with the DonJuans, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriters Don Henry and Jon Vezner.

Paxton opened his set with the song during his New York concert at the Loreto Theater, located at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.  His performance  was part of the Sheen Theater’s series Back on Bleecker Street: Songs of Social Change.

Paxton’s own history on Bleecker Street extends back to the Greenwich Village of the early 1960s when he was a leader in the rise of socially conscious folk songwriting. “Tom wasn’t the only person who got the idea you could write your own folk songs. But he wrote some of the best songs around, quite literally,”  Steve Earle told Billboard in October 2017, before performing with Paxton at the singer’s 80th birthday celebration in New York.

Across the decades, generations of musicians have drawn inspiration from Paxton’s songs of love, laughter and political outrage: “Ramblin’ Boy,” “Bottle of Wine,” “The Last Thing On My Mind,” “What Did You Learn In School Today,” “Whose Garden Was This,” “The Marvelous Toy,” “The Bravest” and countless more.  He received a lifetime achievement honor at the Grammy Awards in 2009.

On stage in New York, Paxton recalled the influence of folk pioneer Woody Guthrie in writing topical songs inspired by news events -- what he has called “short-shelf-life songs.”  He noted that he wrote “What If, No Matter” after the killing of six and attempted murder of former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords by a mentally disturbed gunman at a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center.

There is no official definition of a mass shooting. While estimates have varied, all of the numbers are staggering in their violence. Since the attack on Gifford, by one measure, 44 mass shootings in the United States have resulted in 1,249 victims, including 392 deaths.

In only its second live performance by Paxton and the DonJuans on Nov. 7, 2017 at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland, Ore., “What If, No Matter” was recorded for a new live album from their tour.  Two days after the Parkland, Fla., murders, on his Facebook page, Paxton posted a video of the song. Its lyrics powerfully challenge the view that mental health measures, without further gun control, can stop gun violence.

What if, no matter how right he was,

How wrong they were,

How evil they were,

What if, no matter how right he was,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun?

 

No rifle, no pistol,

No shotgun in sight,

No revolver, automatic,

No assault gun tonight,

No clips crammed with bullets

Anywhere to be found,

No weapons just laying around?

 

What if, no matter how outraged he was,

How furious he was,

How murderous he was,

What if, no matter how outraged he was,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun,

He couldn't lay hands on a gun.

"What If, No Matter" could have been penned this [past] week just as easily as it was in 2011 as more lives were lost in South Florida,” wrote Paxton on his Facebook page. “While some songs may have a short shelf-life, this, unfortunately, continues to be as relevant as ever.”


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