Peter, Paul and Mary

Today is the birthday of Noel “Paul” Stookey (b. 1937). When I was a kid I played my dad’s old Peter, Paul and Mary records (especially their eponymous debut record) over and over and over, wearing out the already worn-out grooves. This is especially funny to me, because I don’t really like them! Or to be more specific, I never liked that squeaky-clean, “Weavers” type singing style. It’s always seemed the antithesis of authentic folkishness to me. But while I don’t go for the way they do the songs, I like the repertoire. Does that make any sense? The songs are moving and meaningful and not incidentally catchy.

Not to be cynical, but the group was formed as a commercial enterprise by manager Albert Grossman. They were as manufactured as the Monkees or the Sex Pistols and were created to make hit records, which they did for almost a decade (1961-70). Kentucky born Mary Travers (1936-2009) was the star of the act as far as I was concerned. The third member was Peter Yarrow (b. 1938). The name of the group evoked two Apostles and the Mother of Jesus, which isn’t strange when you consider the importance of Gospel music and spirituals to the Civil Rights movement. Peter and Paul had this bookend/ twin quality that made them seem more like Diana Ross’s Supremes or Gladys Knight’s Pips, backups as opposed to equals with the chick at the center of this Jules et Jim style triangle, though the pair wrote one of my favorite songs “Autumn to May”, and Yarrow co-wrote their 1963 hit “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

The group filled an interesting transitional niche, in the mold of clean-cut acts like Brothers Four and the Kingston Trio, but unlike them maybe a notch closer to bohemia (as witnessed by the van dykes on the two men, and Mary’s straight, long Greenwich Village hair). They were able to outlast the early 60s folk boom more than many of their predecessors and contemporaries. Yet they came a half second before the more authentic sounding acts like Bob Dylan and Patrick Sky displaced the original “commercial” phase of the folk revival. The group’s hit covers of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” certainly paved the way for his own crossover success. They also helped popularize Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and had a #1 hit in 1969 with John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, paving the way for his success as well.

Peter, Paul, and Mary broke up in 1970, at around the same time as the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle. (Yarrow also served three months in jail that year, for making improper sexual advances to a 14 year old. He was later pardoned by President Carter). I became aware of the trio shortly after their breakup during my early years of elementary school (1971-72-73) thanks to a groovy hippie music teacher who taught us “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Stewball”, a song which provided the melodic basis for John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.

A few years later I discovered that my dad had almost all of their albums, and that’s when I played them, as a teenager and young adult, a dozen years and more after they’d broken up. I think I was less interested in the musical aspect of it than the lyrical content, the KennedyJohnson era idealism, the anti-war and social justice sentiments they expressed. It’s funny to me, because my dad was an arch-conservative, but he liked this kind of music.

At the very same time I was listening to these old records, Peter, Paul and Mary reunited, one imagines to join the fight against Reagan (and because all three of their solo careers were a flop-a-roo). I associate this incarnation with PBS fundraisers and the like, and I steered clear of the contemporary PP&M. They seemed like a nostalgia act; ironically their old records sounded more vital than their contemporary selves. I honestly don’t know what they could have done to escape that trap. Their own notable experiment at trying to sound “with it” was their satirical 1967 single “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”, which made them sound ironically reactionary and irrelevant. To move forward they’d have needed a reinvention of some sort and they never quite found it. They were who they were.

Younger folks who are unfamiliar with the real McCoy may find references to them in pop culture. The folk trio in Robert Altman’s Nashville (Tom Bill and Mary, played by Keith Caradine, Christina Raines and Allan F. Nichols) seems an updated, cooler version of Peter, Paul and Mary. They are also strongly referenced in Christopher Guests’s A Mighty Wind (2003) and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2014).