Tom Paxton is returning to the Ark on Friday, November 6, for what will likely be the last time. He’s not ill, but after touring for more than fifty years he is finally hanging up his traveling shoes.

mazingly prolific, with more than sixty albums since 1964, Paxton is one of the finest songwriters of the past fifty years. In 2009 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and it’s the rare performer, in folk and plenty of other genres, whose repertoire doesn’t include at least one Paxton song–there’s even one on a Bob Dylan bootleg.

Paxton’s a master craftsman. His songs are always sculpted and polished; they never succumb to contrived, close-enough-for-folk-music rhymes, mailed-in melodies, or fuzzy logic. He’s written dozens of enduring classics like “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “Bottle of Wine,” and “Marvelous Toy” as well as countless less well-known but equally superb songs. “Whose Garden Was This?,” which he wrote for the first Earth Day in 1970, still stands as perhaps the paramount song inspired by, and inspiring, the environmentalist movement. “My Favorite Spring” is, next to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the best baseball song ever written, while also being a deeply touching father-and-son story.

Paxton’s always had a special gift for comic songs; listen to “Battle of the Sexes” on his just released album Redemption Road:

George Washington and Martha

Sat before a glowing hearth

Another soft, Virginia evening drifting by

But as the room grew colder

She asked if she looked older

And he said, “My dear I cannot tell a lie.”

But few songwriters have penned more hard-hitting, socially conscious protest songs. From the Vietnam-era “Jimmy Newman” to the rap-inflected “If the Poor Don’t Matter” on Redemption Road, they are honest, stirring, and deeply felt, yet never polemic or self-righteous. His love songs, many inspired by his feelings for his wife and daughters, are sweet without being saccharine, moving but not maudlin.

Then there are what Paxton calls his “short shelf-life songs,” songs so topical that, even if they came with expiration dates, never get stale. Listen to “John Ashcroft And The Spirit of Justice,” and try to keep from laughing out loud at the punch line.

Paxton has been coming to the Ark for more than forty years, and this final performance will be one of the last dates on his farewell tour. Though he is getting off the road, it’s unlikely that he’ll stop writing. We may never again see Paxton in Ann Arbor, but we’ll be hearing and singing his songs for a long, long time to come.