The Marvelous Toy – A Christmas Music Countdown

“When I was just a wee little boy

Full of health and joy

My father gave to me one day

A marvelous little toy”

Tom Paxton

 “The Marvelous Toy” was written by folk-song writer Thomas Richard Paxton.  Born in 1937, when his father’s health failed, the family moved to Wickenburg, Ariz. Young Tom began riding horses and it was here that was first introduced to what would become known as “folk music.”

Wikiepedia says that in 1948, the Paxtons moved to Bristow, Okla. His father died of a stroke shortly after that. When Tom was 16, he received a guitar from his aunt, and he immersed himself in the music of Harry Belafonte.

He enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in 1955 to study drama. There, he found himself in the company of other folk music lovers, and discovered the music of Woody Guthrie, whose “fearlessness” he admired. Guthrie became one of Paxton’s greatest influences he and his group, The Travelers, began singing in off-campus coffeehouses. Tom’s first original song was “Robert,” an Elizabethan murder ballad.

After graduating from college in 1959 with a BFA, Paxton acted in summer stock theatre and briefly tried graduate school before joining the Army. While attending the Clerk Typist School in Fort Dix, N.J., he got “bored” (I can relate to that) and began writing songs on his typewriter and spent almost every weekend visiting Greenwich Village in New York City during the emerging early 1960s folk revival.

Shortly after his honorable discharge from the Army, Paxton auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio via publisher Milt Okun in 1960. He initially received the part, but his voice did not blend well enough with those of the other group members. However, after singing his song “The Marvelous Toy” for Okun, he became the first writer signed to Milt’s music publishing company, Cherry Lane Music Publishing.

Tom soon began performing at The Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, where he became a mainstay. In 1962, he recorded a privately-produced live album at the Gaslight entitled, “I’m the Man That Built the Bridges.” During his stay in Greenwich Village, Tom published some of his songs in the folk magazines Broadside and Sing Out!, and performed alongside such folksingers as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Dave Van Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt.

Of the songwriters on the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s, Dave Van Ronk said, “Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement, and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton … he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people… he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day.

Dylan had not yet showed up when this was happening, and by the time Bobby came on the set, with at most two or three songs he had written, Tom was already singing at least 50 percent his own material. That said, it was Bobby’s success that really got the ball rolling. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional.”

Not all of Paxton’s songs were so “marvelous” after that; they were heavily politicized, critical and negative. Only occasionally did he write something that would be considered “popular”. His “My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog,” went on, literally, to commercial success selling Ken-L-Ration dog food. In 2001, he recorded the album, Looking for the Moon which contains the song “The Bravest,” which is about the firefighters who gave their lives while trying to save others in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Among the folk singers who sang song were Peter, Paul & Mary and John Denver. I also thought Mac Davis sang. That’s what I remember, anyway, although I can’t find any citations for it. I thought I remembered Mac Davis recording and hearing his version of it when I was a teenager. Since then, I have heard John Denver’s version; it’s on two of his Christmas Albums: “Christmas Like a Lullaby” and “Christmas Celebration in Concert.”

Both he and Davis do a “marvelous” job as the wistful dad giving the toy he got as a two or three year-old to his toddler, and the joy he had and watching the joy in his own son’s face.

When my brothers and I were children, it was the Space Age – the mid Sixties (about the time Paxton was writing protest songs and dog food jingles) – and our parents gave us a yellow spaceship that you could wind up. It was actually a gyroscope with hard plastic molding that was designed on the outside somewhat (though not exactly like) the Jupiter II from TV’s Lost in Space, which we were all great fans of.

The ship came with a metal key and red knob (which eventually fell off from enthusiastic use). We would insert the key and start winding. The gyro wound making this really cool, winding, metallic whirring sound that crescendoed as the speed built up.

When the crescendoing had peaked, we’d set the space ship down and it would spin and wind itself around the floor, like it had been launched into space. We just thought this was the greatest thing and we’d imagined we were “lost in space,” ready to explore other planets. The sound alone sent us into delighted ecstasies.

The spaceship is still at my mother’s house. My younger brother assures us it’s in a safe place. I think we’ll have to ask him to trot in out, now that it’s come to mind, so we can play with our marvelous time again. At some point, we’ll pass on to The Nephew, once we’re certain that he’s going to have a “little him (or her)” someday to pass our marvelous toy on to.

Published in: on December 15, 2010 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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