It was 48 years ago this year when three folk singers combined talents and made their debut at Greenwich Village’s Bitter End coffee house. What began there has become a legacy, shared by people all over the world who are now on a first-name basis with Peter, Paul and Mary. With many albums, Grammy awards and esteemed television shows behind them, they continue to embrace the family of folk music, singing new songs written by the “old soul” poets of today as well as traditional ballads drawn from the great folk heritage they still honor and enjoy.
The issue of song content and message is equally important to the group and lies at the heart of their story. In music and in deed, Peter, Paul and Mary placed themselves on the front lines of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Today their individual and collective efforts focus on crucial issues such as gun violence against children, the rights and organizing efforts of strawberry pickers in California, homelessness and world hunger. As Mary Travers notes, “We’ve always been involved with issues that deal with the fundamental human rights of people, whether that means the right to political freedom or the right to breathe air that’s clean.”
Since its inception, the Trio has been a union of distinctly different artists committed to common goals. Yarrow, Stookey and Travers each have separate interests and impressive solo projects which they’ve pursued in addition to their career together. What unites them is a mutual respect and shared affection for the “Seeger’s Raiders” tradition of folk music. They see this music as being, by definition, one of activism and hope.
Peter, Paul and Mary were launched during an unusually creative period in popular music. Yarrow, who had come to Greenwich Village with a psychology degree from Cornell, recalls that, “The Village in the early 1960s was a crucible of creativity. Involvement in music was a matter of joyous discovery, not business. We knew that folk music was having an enormous impact in the Village, but was a couple of years away from being embraced on a national scale.”
At the same time, the Village was a starting place for Noel Paul Stookey, a fledgling stand-up comic from Michigan State University. He met up with Peter and independently, Mary Travers, who was already known for her work in the Song Swappers, a folk group that had recorded with Pete Seeger. Having grown up in the Village, the flaxen-haired singer was a familiar figure at the Washington Square Sunday singing event. The three decided to work together, encouraged by folk impresario Albert Grossman, who became their manager.
After rehearsing for seven months in Travers’ three-flight walk-up apartment, Peter, Paul and Mary premiered at the Bitter End in 1961 and then played at other seminal folk clubs like Chicago’s Gate of Horn and San Francisco’s Hungry I. Following their appearance at the famed Blue Angel nightclub in New York, they embarked on a rigorous touring schedule that lasted nearly ten straight years.
The Trio’s debut in 1962 on Warner Bros. Records brought folk music to the vast American public and to the top of the charts. As Billboard magazine noted, “It became an instant classic. The album was in the Top Ten for ten months, remained in the Top 20 for two years, and did not drop off the Hot 100 album charts until three-and-a-half years after its release.” Their version of “If I Had a Hammer” was not only a popular single from this LP, it was also embraced as an anthem of the civil rights movement.
This success marked the beginning of an incredibly influential time for the group, and for the contemporary urban folk tradition which they personified. In the third week of November 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary had three albums on the Billboard Top Six. That same year, their recording of “Puff (the Magic Dragon)” by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton won the hearts of millions, while their recording of “Blowin’ in The Wind” helped introduce a fellow Village songwriter named Bob Dylan. It was folk music that was to spark the imagination and the passion of a generation intent on social change.
But Peter, Paul and Mary did more in those times than chronicle events - they lived their songs. In 1963, they stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and in Washington. They were deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War crusade, consistently performing at demonstrations, fund-raisers and “teach-ins.” In 1969, Yarrow co-organized the March on Washington, and Peter, Paul and Mary sang before the half-million people who had come together for that landmark event.
By virtue of their popularity, Peter, Paul and Mary’s recordings effectively introduced the work of important new writing talents to the American public. Their renditions of Gordon Lightfoot’s “In the Early Morning Rain” and John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” engineered by the legendary Phil Ramone, helped launch an appreciation and awareness of these new artists. By 1970, Peter, Paul and Mary had earned eight gold and five platinum albums.
That same year, needing some time for personal growth, the group disbanded, and each member began pursuing individual interests. Stookey’s spiritual commitment led him to pen “The Wedding Song,” make eight solo recordings (one of which received a Grammy nomination) and create a multi-media organization that is still involved in a variety of children’s computer, television and music projects. Mary Travers recorded five albums; produced, wrote and starred in a BBC television series; and lectured and concertized across the country. Peter concentrated on political activism and solo music projects, and also co-wrote and produced the Number One hit for Mary McGregor, “Torn Between Two Lovers.” His three animated specials for CBS television based on “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” earned Yarrow an Emmy nomination.
Not unexpectedly, it was an important cause that reunited Peter, Paul and Mary in 1978. Peter was helping to organize Survival Sunday, an anti-nuclear benefit at the Hollywood Bowl, and he asked Noel and Mary to join him on stage. “We hadn’t sung together in six years,” Mary recalls. “We realized that we’d missed each other personally and musically, so we decided to try a limited reunion tour. We wanted to work together enough to have it be a meaningful part of our lives, but not so much that it wouldn’t be fun.”
The balance they’ve struck finds them dividing their time now between group and solo performances, playing about 45 dates a year as the Trio. Looking at the chemistry that’s still so potent, Mary observed that “each of us has a talent that’s pivotal for the group. Peter is a patient and meticulous worker, especially when it comes to sound quality, and that commitment to excellence is what yields the best possible environment in which to be creative. Noel has a relaxed sensibility, and that’s a very calming influence when it comes to adjusting to difficult situations, which happen all the time. Of course, both are talented songwriters as well. I think I bring a spontaneity, an ability to connect with them emotionally and focus our attention on having a musical conversation. I believe that if we can have that conversation, then the audience will feel included.”
In keeping with the folk tradition, that “conversation” always includes new songs along with the familiar ones, and the new songs invariably reflect the group’s current concerns. Their first-hand accounts of the sufferings they witnessed in Central America gave special meaning to Stookey’s “El Salvador,” while Yarrow’s “Light One Candle” gives voice to their support for the peace process in Israel. Both of these songs were released on an independent single in 1985, and profits went to support the Sanctuary Movement and self-determination efforts in Central America.
With “No Easy Walk to Freedom,” the title track from their album released in 1986, Peter, Paul and Mary focused attention on the anti-apartheid cause, and were honored by the Free South Africa movement at a special benefit at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That same year, they were among the vanguard of artists who worked to raise the public’s awareness of homelessness. Their opening night of a week on Broadway was a fund-raiser on behalf of the New York Coalition for the Homeless. These efforts all marked the group’s 25-year association and culminated in their PBS special, 25th Anniversary Concert, which was broadcast in support of public television. This show has become one of the most popular specials and most successful fund-raisers in PBS history.
In 1988, Peter, Paul & Mary became the focus of yet another special for PBS with A Holiday Concert, taped before a live audience in New York City. For this performance, they were accompanied by the 160-member New York Choral Society and a 40-piece orchestra. Their renditions of holiday music were captured in A Holiday Celebration recording.
The passion in their music continues to persuade. One can’t listen to those songs without noticing their idealism. Reflecting on that, Stookey notes, in light of today’s realities, “We live in more pragmatic times than when we originally recorded those songs. But many of the dreamers of the ‘60s have been elected to governmental office or taken on a leadership role in their communities. They are now in the position to make a difference.”
The conviction that each of us can make a difference has continued to energize Peter, Paul and Mary’s political and social activism throughout the 37 years they’ve been together. Having witnessed the enormous changes in society that were wrought by the early advocacies of which they were a part, notably the Civil Rights and Peace Movements, the group remains optimistic as it confronts the challenges and pervasive cynicism of our times.
Peter, Paul and Mary participated in the creation of two Public Service announcements (PSAs). The first focused on the issue of gun violence against children. Developed in tandem with the National Crime Prevention Council, the Ad Council and Saatchi & Saatchi (advertising agency), and entitled “Where Have All the Children Gone,” the Trio added a new meaning to this historic anthem of peace, penned by Pete Seeger. The PSA presented images of children and families mourning children lost to gunfire. The result was a moving and effective message seen by millions of Americans. Over 1400 stations broadcast the PSA which offered a 1-800 number for viewers to request informational brochures which describe ways to combat crime in our communities and teach non-violent conflict resolution to children.
The Trio joined with the Department of Agriculture in an effort to eradicate hunger in our country. Noting that over 95 billion pounds of food are wasted every year, the PSA encourages all Americans to do their part by participating in local “hands on” food recovery and redistribution programs or “gleaning” as it is also known.
Most recently they have been involved in an effort to advance economic justice as it relates to the strawberry pickers of California. Faced with deplorable working conditions, back-breaking work and exposure to harmful pesticides, the strawberry farm workers, who are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, seek the kinds of contracts won by the grape pickers in the 1960sones that guarantee a living wage, humane working conditions and health insurance. Peter, Paul and Mary’s benefit for the UFW organizing campaign in Santa Cruz on March 19, 1998 marked the 30th anniversary of the first benefit the Trio performed for Cesar Chavez and the UFW at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1968.
Their music has linked people of different generations as well as different opinions and beliefs. This has never been more evident than in the Trio’s numerous trips to Japan. Bridging two distinctly different cultures, Peter, Paul and Mary now bring a sense of their early 1960’s trips to the children of their earliest fans and friends who, as in America, now share folk music “as a family.”
In 1992, Peter, Paul and Mary re-signed with Warner Bros. Records, their first label, and recorded Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, their second children’s album. (Peter, Paul and Mommy, released in 1969, was the name Mary’s daughter Erika once gave her mother’s group.) The Grammy-nominated album and video, taped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theatre in New York before a live audience of children and their families, is a full-length concert which aired as an Emmy-nominated, hour-long special on PBS, now available as a home video from Warner Reprise Video.
Youngsters from Mary’s own alma mater, The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, participated in the recording. This effort is a definitive statement of the Trio’s legacy as it is passed on to the successive generations, of which there are now four - all a part of the group’s audience. Songs on the album include live versions of “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” “The Fox,” “The Garden Song,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Inside” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
Though Peter, Paul and Mary have performed for 48 years, and do celebrate the past and a sense of continuity, they continue to look ahead, evolve, and explore new musical arenas. The uniting of three generations of folk singers on their 1996 television show and album, LifeLines, offered them the opportunity to sing with their mentors, their contemporaries that started with them in Greenwich Village, and new singer/songwriters who are carrying on the time-honored folk tradition. Participants included Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, formerly of The Weavers, Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, John Sebastian, Buddy Mundlock and Susan Werner. The vitality and resilience of the folk community was the hallmark of this memorable, creative collaboration. As with LifeLines and Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, Peter, Paul and Mary’s Around The Campfire incorporates a subtext of “carrying it on.” In Campfire’s four newly recorded cuts, the Trio deliberately chose to sing with voices that were passionate and musical, but untutored. The message, more and more, is that their music belongs to, and can be performed by, everyone. In this, their fourth decade together, Peter, Paul and Mary seek to be viewed less as performers and more as purveyors of a universal, accessible language that fosters mutual recognition, mutual validation and empowerment. As Peter says, “Particularly the children, who are so frequently marginalized, need to know they have a voice, that they can be heard - and why not a singing voice? When combined with others Around The Campfire, in school or at home, these songs dramatically demonstrate what Peter, Paul and Mary have lived and learned: We can reach each other. We do make a difference to one another. Ultimately, we are a family.”
In These Times, their 2004 release, doesn’t really tinker with the formula that propelled them into the spotlight all those years ago, but if the canny blend of traditional tunes, social commentary, and contemporary compositions still works, why change it? Their voices no longer have the vigor and clarity they once did, but on songs like “Jesus on the Wire,” a stark mediation on the death of Matthew Shepard composed by Thea Hopkins, or the folk classic “Wayfaring Stranger,” the whispery tone and wobbling harmonies add poignancy to the hard-earned authority of the performances. In its basic format, In These Times recalls Peter, Paul and Mary’s earlier recordings, but the songs themselves, most of which were composed in the last few years, show that the trio has successfully resisted the urge to wallow in nostalgia.
The Trio has achieved its remarkable status by never wavering from its earliest commitment to the spirit of the folk music tradition it inherited. As Mary says of folk songs, “The songs tell you, ‘If you’re going to sing me, you have to live me, too.’“ With all the fun and explosive joy inherent in music that’s filled with stories from the past, romantic and historical ballads, children’s songs and work songs, there is also a continuing thread or message that explains why Peter, Paul and Mary are still filled with hope, and free of cynicism. “People can overcome their differences, and when united, move toward a world of greater fairness and justice,” says Peter. “As in folk music, each person has a unique role to play.” Collectively and individually, Peter, Paul and Mary has lived the reality that each person can, and does, make a difference.