Friday, July 1, 2011

Tom Paxton's "Bottle Of Wine"

Back in January, I was delighted to be able to see Tom Paxton in concert at one of the great small venues on the West Coast, McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, CA. Paxton is a hale and energetic 75 years old, still writing great songs ("The Bravest" about the firefighters of 9/11 and the very recent "What If, No Matter" about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting), and still puts on about as good a folk show as you can see. I have profiled three of TP's best-known and most-often-covered songs here on CompVid101 - "The Last Thing On My Mind, "My Ramblin' Boy", and "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound", and I've outlined in those posts why I regard him as the best of the modern folk-type songwriters.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Milt Okun at a book singing, and Okun's Cherry Lane Music Co. has been Paxton's sole publisher for the more than five decades of his career. Reading Okun's book was illuminating about a wide variety of topics, most especially how an artist like Paxton, who has had steady but unspectacular album sales and virtually no singles sales, could have made a good living in music through all these years. Answer: the nine cents per unit sold that goes to the songwriter/copyright holder of the composition. Think about how many millions of albums have been sold with Paxton's songs on them - by the Chad Mitchell Trio (really the first high-profile group to do TP's songs), the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, and many more - and you begin to understand how even in lean performing times that a songwriter of Paxton's caliber can prosper. It also explains why publishing income frequently becomes a bone of contention within bands and why the issues of copyright with sharing sites such as Napster of ancient memory and YouTube today remain so controversial.

For all of Paxton's songwriting success, only one composition of his ever became a bona fide singles hit, and that was "Bottle of Wine," a celebration of the joys of a rootless life spent drinking cheap wine - clearly a younger man's composition. The Fireballs' version of Paxton's tune sold over a million copies, which in 1968 dollars would have given Tom enough coin to buy a really nice house and car - not to mention the ongoing income from royalties and licensing every time anyone wants to use the song and every time an oldies radio station wants to play it.

"Bottle of Wine" is an innocent bit of fluff - not a sermon against the very real evils of alcoholism against which the "preacher will preach and the teacher will teach." Paxton's own approach to the song has always been as lighthearted as his lyric - here is from last January in San Diego, the night after I saw him at McCabe's:

The Kingston Trio did a fine job with the tune in 1964 - John Stewart's banjo part lends exactly the right kind of rollicking touch, and the little key change at the end is nice:

Forty plus years after the '68 hit, here are Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs in 2009:

I think that the Harris Brothers here capture just about the right mellowed-out feeling with the song - where the Fireballs sing it as if they'd had a few bottles, the Harrises sound like most of us feel after a few glasses:

Finally - Madacoustic braved the family rec room and the drunken friends to deliver a fine amateur performance in just the right setting:

Not much more to be said after that. Hoping that everyone safely enjoys quite a few bottles of wine over the coming holiday weekend. I certainly intend to.


Mike said...

Having started out with the Fireballs version of this song, I heard a lot of "That's not how you're supposed to play it" from purists in my coffeehouse days. Several years later -- several years too late to be useful for me, alas -- I heard an interview with Tom Paxton where he said how much he liked that version.

(Of course, that's only one opinion ... )

Jim Moran said...

Hey Mike - I thought the Fireballs were a bit too raucous on it (I like the Harrisses here the best) - but by '68 it was a pleasure to hear any folk-type song get radio airplay. The next year PP&M had a #1 hit with "Jet Plane"; James Taylor broke through the year after that, then Lightfoot - and thus "folk" became completely singer/songwriter and never looked back. I am deliberately overlooking Dylan, of course, because after '65, whatever he was doing (great though some of it was) - it wasn't folk.

Kate Snow said...

There is no bad version of this song, but I agree with Mike--the Fireballs it is!