For the overwhelming majority of his career, Chicago-native Tom Paxton has worked in the periphery of folk music. He’s toted his guitar around since the early 1960s, brushing up against genre luminaries like Pete Seeger, and has had his work covered by even better known pop stars. During these six decades, Paxton’s mostly been operating under the auspices of independent labels, maintaining a following while seeming supremely reserved when compared to his contemporaries, who embraced an electric sound to relate their message. Political songs, though, sound just as urgent in Paxton’s acoustic strains, even when set against his story songs and a spate of lighter music. With all the heavy political stuff weighing down his work, the singer has been able to phrase his writing in such a manner to grant each verse a certain childlike quality. Songs like “What Did You Learn in School Today?” come off as kindergarten sing-alongs, light and airy, while including timely verses Paxton adds on a whim (there’s even a YouTube clip of the guitarist singing a biting bit about Hillary Clinton during the mid-nineties). The entire kids’ melody thing gets exacerbated by supplemental instrumentation Paxton favors, brushing up against bluegrass, hippified hand-drumming and accidentally flirting with Caribbean vibes on “Cindy’s Cryin’.” That track details a troubled girl, turning it out to maintain a habit. Paxton’s lilting voice and all that easy piano belies the subject matter. But his understated persona is what’s allowed Paxton to persist over the years. He seems like the sensible lefty whose been able to keep from going off the deep end—politically and chemically—while his brethren have wound up clichéd, troubled or just cranky old men. (Dave Cantor)
October 7 at Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln, (773)728-6000, 7pm. $24-$28.