By Gene Knapp
[S]o begins the recent book, Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, a beautiful celebration of three lives forever intertwined, and so began the nearly 50-year journey of Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers, a journey that gave us some glorious music—and much more.
The magic they felt in that grungy apartment never subsided. And now, all these years later, it seems only appropriate that a trio of sounds (Discovered: Live in Concert, a live album containing previously unreleased material), visuals (50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary, a PBS documentary) and words (the aforementioned book) recently came together to create a narrative that presents what Peter Paul and Mary stood for, lived through, and shared with the world. In Yarrow’s words, the book, the album and the film were “meant to be a legacy piece to let people know us on an intimate level.” That they are.
When asked about how the massive undertaking of the album, the documentary and the book came to be, Yarrow admitted that “some is serendipity and some is by design.” After taking time to absorb their emotions after Travers’ death in 2009, ideas surfaced to create, as Yarrow put it, “a celebration of our time together.” Each piece of this undertaking is just that: a celebration.
When looking back at the astounding careers and lives of Peter, Paul and Mary, we need to ask, “why?” Why, after having risen to prominence during the late ’50s/early ’60s resurgence of folk music that brought so many others (notably the Kingston Trio and Chad Mitchell Trio) to popularity, did Peter, Paul, and Mary eclipse them all? Was it simply the music? Was it their resolve? Was it their activism? Perhaps it was all these things and more.
To be sure, Peter, Paul and Mary’s fusion of traditional folk music with romantic ballads and contemporary protest anthems forged a sound that was—and is—unequaled. But, moreover, with heavenly harmonies that cause smiles to grow and individual voices that paint a vivid picture in the listener’s mind, Peter, Paul and Mary helped transform the folk genre in that they spoke directly to us. As Stookey put it, when Travers sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “she spoke to all the mothers whose sons were leaving for Vietnam.”
Thus it’s fitting that in gathering material for Discovered: Live in Concert, Stookey and Yarrow looked for, as the latter put it, “moments of passion and baring convictions that could only be done on stage.” As Stookey pointed out, the tracks included on Discovered were “reference tapes” or “basement tapes” that ended up as a “baker’s dozen [where we put] our hearts on our sleeve.” While all but one of these songs can’t be found on a previous live album, they represent every aspect of the group’s career. Just listen to the rousing “Midnight Special” or to Travers’ beautiful reading of John Gorka’s magnificent “Semper Fi” and you will understand.
Furthermore, as their music and their activism mingled comfortably with each other, Peter, Paul and Mary always remained true to their beliefs with great resolve. They marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and found that, as Yarrow summarized, “our singing could make a difference, especially in the civil rights movement and anti-war movement.” From “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “El Salvador” (Stookey’s controversial statement that was released as a single to shed light on the brutality of that country’s government and military), Peter, Paul and Mary never wavered in their quest for justice, raising their voices in song. Whether reading the powerful and heartfelt narrative in Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, enjoying 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary, or listening to the electricity they create on Discovered: Live in Concert, that spirit is always at the forefront.
All these elements—their quest for justice, their reshaping of the folk genre, or simply the beauty of their music itself—would have been enough to sustain their remarkable career, but there’s another element: They were a family.
Through the years and the tears, through the beautiful harmonies and the activism, through the joy and the laughs, perhaps Peter, Paul and Mary’s 50th anniversary celebration is really a celebration of folk music itself. As Stookey said, “What we inherit from folk music is an appreciation for the eclectic.” And as Louis Armstrong once said, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” Yes, folk music draws from everywhere and everyone and tells all of our stories. In the foreword to Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, Secretary of State John Kerry aptly summarizes why the group means so much some 50 years after first convening in that grungy walk-up: “Through both their songs and their struggle, they helped propel out nation on its greatest journey… That is why, after all these years, we return to the music.”
Catch Peter Yarrow at Circle of Friends Coffeehouse in Franklin, MA on January 24. For more information, click here.