The Redemption Road Not Taken:

Will Tom Paxton’s New Album Stand Up to the Original?

By Ross Altman, PhD

One of the bright lights of Austin, Texas—home of Austin City Limits—is L.A. born folk singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, who tours all over the Midwest and has created more than a dozen albums of original songs since 1997, when she released her fourth album Redemption Road. The title song is track 12 and though the lyric insert sheet can be hard to read with the fine print, there is no problem reading the lyrics to the title song—they are plastered in large print all over the CD label itself—where most artists would put a flattering photograph of themselves. Not Eliza; she thought enough of her title track to make sure you couldn’t miss the lyrics; so here they are:

Eliza Gilkison Redemption RoadFloating along in my mind

Wandering between yours and mine

This thin red line, REDEMPTION

Lovers entwined in the park

Love’s afterglow in the dark

The soul spark, REDEMPTION

I don’t care I’m alone

I’ve got a dream of my own

All of my plans are blown, REDEMPTION

Sending my prayers to the sky

Heart’s winged arrows fly

To bull’s eye, REDEMPTION ROAD

Shadows of cottonwoods loom

Wild dogs howl at the moon

A love tune, REDEMPTION ROAD

    By Eliza Gilkyson ©1997 Gilkysongs (BMI)

The title refrain Redemption Road is in even a larger font than the surrounding verses—and a different color blue to make it stand out and guarantee you can’t miss it. And the beautiful lyrical hopeful love song it contains repeats the title a number of times as performed beyond the printed version—in case you didn’t get it the first time around.

Nonetheless, somehow Tom Paxton missed it, and his producer Jim Rooney missed it, because he has claimed that title as his own for his upcoming album funded by Kickstarter—Redemption Road. Needless to add, Marcy Marxer who managed that fundraising campaign also missed it because from the beginning it has been displayed as the title of the album.

You can’t copyright a title, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go around ripping them off. When I wrote a song in 1988 about Fred Astaire, I originally called it Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, because that was the refrain in the song. I soon discovered, however, that this title had already been taken—by a little-known songwriter named Irving Berlin, and I realized that if I kept that title whatever royalties the song might earn would probably wind up in Mr. Berlin’s ASCAP account. Nobody would conclude that he had stolen it from me. So I changed it—to Fred Astaire—the hero of the song.

Not everyone is so conscientious as me, so when Lifetime Cable made a movie about Allen Schindler, the gay Navy veteran who had been beaten to death in a hate crime by his own unit when he was stationed in Japan, they stole the title song of my gay rights album Any Mother’s Son and made that the title of their movie. I know this to be the case because Allen Schindler’s mother—the mother of the title—admitted it to me after I gave her the album on the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Long Beach during a gay rights march she attended, and later told me she had passed on my album to the movie’s producers in Chicago—where she lived—and they in turn used it for the title of their movie then in production. That’s when I found out you can’t copyright a title and they in fact had broken no law in stealing my title. This is the first time this story has been made public.

What does this all have to do with Tom Paxton? Well, he has just concluded a very successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his first Independent album, after more than 60 albums to his credit released on a number of major and small folk labels going all the way back to his Elektra records in the 1960s. They were aiming to raise $20,000 in 60 days—and they wound up raising more than $32,000. The title of the album—broadcast all over his Kickstarter web site and personal web site as well—is Redemption Road. Paxton wrote the lyrics to a preexisting instrumental tune by Geoff Bartley from 2008. Here they are, courtesy of the folk web site Mudcat Café:

Tom Paxton KickstarterREDEMPTION ROAD

(Tom Paxton; Geoff Bartley)

Paid the man all he was owed,

Tipped my hat and walked away

Down that sweet redemption road,

Put it down to yesterday.

Come redemption my old friend,

When the seeds of life are sowed.

Come and lead me to the end

Of that sweet redemption road.

Looking back I can't complain.

I took out what I put in.

Days of snow and days of rain

And redemption in the end.

Come redemption my old friend,

When the seeds of life are sowed.

Come and lead me to the end

Of that sweet redemption road.

Only time and time alone

Treats each weary soul the same.

When my sum of days has flown,

Time alone will know my name.

When my sum of days has flown,

Time alone will know my name.

“The project will end tomorrow, and there are 537 backers for this new album so far. If you haven't heard about this new album yet and still want to back it, click HERE.”

It’s due out in early 2015, if all goes according to plan. The problem is that L.A. born and Austin-based folk singer Eliza Gilkyson put out her own Redemption Road—with the title song as track 12—back in 1997; and it was rereleased in 2003. It is still available on her website and I just picked mine up at Amoeba Records in Hollywood.

No major label backing, no Kickstarter Campaign to raise $32,000, no prominent photo with Joan Baez standing beside her, just a young woman with a dream of her own—and a great title and title song. Is it up for grabs? Can any major artist who seems to have run out of ideas just swoop down and take it for their own? Not without a word of protest they can’t.

Call this my Kickstopper Campaign to reach out to Mr. Paxton, about whom I am on record as a long-time fan and admirer—see my tribute T. Pax in these pages just a year ago, and rave review of his most recent concert at McCabe’s Tom Paxton and Tonto Ride Again. He deserves the benefit of the doubt; he has certainly earned it. Tom Paxton is a great artist and this uncharacteristic oversight does not diminish that fact one iota. I will assume he forgot where he first saw those words in print and may even have assumed he just came up with them. Great minds may think alike, but I doubt it; Eliza Gilkyson did, and as someone who is central to the folk music revival of the past 50 years I find it hard to believe he would never have heard of her—since she is the daughter of his contemporary Terry Gilkyson and has released more than a dozen albums on her own.

By the way, I considered sending a letter to this effect in private to Mr. Paxton through his own website but he is well protected. There is no “contact” link available on the site to enable one to communicate directly with him, as is common on ordinary web sites these days. When you click on “Contact” here is what it kicks up:

Tom Paxtons Contact

In other words, you can only “contact” his lawyers, agents and sharks, and leave it to chance whether they will forward your mail.

In the end, I opted to write this open letter, though I don’t expect it to have any effect.

Tom Paxton must have a good 11 songs on this upcoming album; were it mine I would pick another one as the title song and if I were determined to keep Redemption Road on the album at all I would add a credit for Eliza Gilkyson as the source of the title. Copyright law or not, that title belongs to her.

Now here’s the kicker: there are a few other members of the cultural community who should be paying attention to this story—for just as in my original experience with a movie company misappropriating my album title Any Mother’s Son for their movie about the murder of Allen Schindler in the US Navy (I almost said “by the US Navy”) there is likewise a movie made by Mario Van Peebles in 2010 that used Eliza Gilkyson’s album title without crediting its source. Redemption Road: The Movie was followed by Redemption Road: The [Blues] Soundtrack in 2011—still without credit to Ms. Gilkyson—or using her song that gave rise to it.

But wait; like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it just gets curiouser and curiouser: For where there is a movie, can a novel be far behind? And vice versa; that’s right folks: Redemption Road:: The [Mormon Missionary] Novel by Toni Sorenson Brown came out in 2006, published (where else?) in Utah. It inspired one reader’s review: “A horrible book that I would rather have burned for cooking fuel than read. I only gave it one star because I can’t give it a zero.” Then in 2008 came Redemption Road: The Quest for Peace and Justice in Liberia by Elma Shaw; and in 2013 came Redemption Road: A Stone Gap Mountain [Romance] Novel by Kay Stockham. Redemption Road has become a cottage industry. Welcome aboard, Tom; if that’s the road you want to be on.

My editor Steve Shapiro, who is usually a man of fewer words than Jimmy Stewart, atypically decided to weigh in on this argument in the following email:

On a parallel note, I thought of this cool name for my band…Rhythm Method….Googled it and found that there were a couple of rock bands with that name (in other cities).

I decided to go with it…and added “String Band’ to the end only to find that Rhythm Method String Band apparently had been a contra dance band in the North East. I tried to reach the contact but never got a response so I figured… it was gone… So goes it.

And then there is FolkWorks…www.FolkWorks.com is craft store in PA (I believe)….

And, it turns out that FolkWorks is a big folk organization in the UK.

And then, I tried to submit for FolkWorks @ gmail.com....only to find that it is owned by a radio show in Australia….So goes it.

When it comes down to it, it is hard to draw the hard lines. (Steve Shapiro—coeditor with his wife Leda of FolkWorks).

To which I replied that on the contrary, he has just made my case; He instinctively did what I am arguing for—to check on previous uses of a title to determine if it is available.

Before I end this story, however, it remains to be noted that on Gilkyson’s album there is a song called Road Not Taken (which I evoke in the above title to my Open Letter). So is Ms. Gilkyson guilty of the same kind of transgression as addressed herein? Is hers a derivative title too?

Not at all; her use of the title is clearly intended to evoke and pay homage to Robert Frost’s famous poem—a time-honored use of titles. She is not intending to claim the title for her own, but simply to let her listeners know that her range of experience and learning reaches beyond folk music and embraces great literature as well. More power to her.

With that in mind, let me recommend an unpretentious alternative title to Mr. Paxton, taken from another song on the album: The Mayor of MacDougal Street—his tribute to Dave Van Ronk, taken from Van Ronk’s own memoir. That is a legitimate use of someone else’s title—again to pay homage to it. Somewhere up in heaven Van Ronk would be smiling.

Ross Altman performs Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads in Steinbeck Calling, Thursday Oct 30, 8:00pm at Kaitlin & Erica’s Gallery

Ross Altman’s new album will contain Bob Marley’s Redemption Song—fully credited.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com