The most popular folk group of the 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary in later decades have also proved themselves to be among the most durable music acts in history. Their longevity dwarfs that of the Weavers, while the fact that the trio continues to be associated with a major record label (Warner Bros.) after decades in the business sets them apart from rivals like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four. Then again, perhaps it isn't so surprising -- Peter, Paul and Mary's roots run deeper than almost any other folk act one might care to name, while their appeal crosses audience lines that other acts couldn't (and can't) even approach.
Peter, Paul and Mary were part of the 1960s folk revival, but they can trace their roots and inspiration back to music and events from the late '40s, and the founding of the Weavers. In 1948, the musical and political left had been galvanized behind the presidential campaign of former Vice President Henry Wallace and his running mate, Senator Glen Taylor. In the wake of that ticket's defeat that year, in the course of trying to pick up the pieces, singer/composers Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, whose history together went back to the early '40s, and a group called the Almanac Singers, joined with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert in forming the Weavers. They subsequently found themselves with the top-selling record in the country, Goodnight Irene, and for the next two years, the Weavers entertained millions and brought folk music to the public consciousness in a new and vital way through recordings such as "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." Then, as word of the members' personal leftist political histories began circulating, their bookings came to a halt -- ironically enough, the Weavers as a performing group were virtually apolitical in their songs and presentation, but that didn't save them from being blacklisted by the entertainment industry.
They broke up in late 1952, but they left behind two seeds planted in American popular culture. One, deriving from their success, was a modest folk song revival, in some small clubs and especially on college campuses, mostly as entertainment; and the other, a byproduct of their blacklisting, was the coalescing of newly vital, very politically focused branch of folk music. The latter existed as an underground phenomenon, "apart" from a few relatively friendly locales such as New York City's Greenwich Village; it was invisible to most Americans, but it provided a modest living for older performers, and drew and nurtured new, younger talent.
The entertainment branch manifested itself in the guise of acts like the Easy Riders and their younger successors the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, and the Highwaymen, trios and quartets of male singers who brought a smooth veneer to the music. Each of them had their moment -- and sometimes much more than a moment -- in the sun and on the charts beginning in the late '50s. Older performers such as Pete Seeger of the Weavers (as well as the reunited group itself), Ed McCurdy, and Oscar Brand were also around, selling fewer records but making more serious, purposeful records, aimed at smaller audiences. And younger, grittier performers such as Eric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott were also working and recording. And in 1962 and 1963 came the big-band folk outfits the New Christy Minstrels and the Serendipity Singers, who applied elaborate arrangements, utilizing up to nine singers, to folk melodies.
It was against this backdrop, from the late '40s onward, that Mary Travers (b. November 9, 1936, Louisville, KY; d. September 16, 2009, Danbury, CT), Peter Yarrow (b. May 31, 1938, New York, NY), and Paul Stookey (b. December 30, 1937, Baltimore, MD), all came of age. Travers, the daughter of journalists, was raised in Greenwich Village, and was both politically and musically aware; she'd made her first recordings while still in high school, during 1954, in a chorus backing Pete Seeger for Folkways Records. She became a member of the Song Swappers, doing albums of international folk songs and camp songs, and also participated in a stage production, The Next President, written by and starring topical comedian Mort Sahl. As a singer, she was heavily influenced by Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers and also by Jo Mapes, a bluesy white folksinger from Los Angeles who'd emerged in the mid-'50s.
Paul Stookey, born Noel Paul Stookey, had become a huge fan of jazz and what was later called R&B in the mid- to late '40s, took up guitar, and had formed his first band, the Birds of Paradise, in high school during the early '50s. He continued singing in college, and also discovered two additional talents, as a raconteur and as a standup comic, with a special knack for improvising sound effects. He gravitated to Greenwich Village, where he began to learn about folk music. He and Travers became friends and occasionally performed and composed music together. Mostly, however, he did his comedy at local clubs and she made her living working at Elaine Starkman's boutique on Bleecker Street. (Starkman, later a pioneering art gallery owner in New York's SoHo, was a well-known Village designer who made the gown Travers wore for her first wedding. In 1961, part of Stookey's comedy act was captured in Jack O'Connell's film Greenwich Village Story, another part of which was also shot at the Starkman boutique, though Travers was never glimpsed).
Peter Yarrow was a graduate of Cornell University who fell into music while serving as a teaching assistant. By the end of 1959, he was playing in Greenwich Village and, the following year, was booked on a CBS network television show about folk music, during which he met Albert Grossman. Grossman, who went on to manage Bob Dylan and the Band, proposed the idea to Yarrow of forming a trio that would offer serious folk songs, but utilize the same kind of mixed male/female voices as the Weavers, and also the humor of the Limeliters, and the overall spirit of fun found in acts like the Kingston Trio. Yarrow and Grossman approached Travers, and Stookey came aboard last, dropping his first name in favor of his better-sounding middle name Paul, and Peter, Paul and Mary were born. With the guidance of arranger Milt Okun, who had worked with Harry Belafonte and the Chad Mitchell Trio, they put together a three-part vocal sound that was distinctive and, after seven months of careful preparation, the group emerged to instant acclaim in Greenwich Village.
They were signed to Warner Bros., and their first, self-titled LP was released in March of 1962. It was accompanied by a single, "Lemon Tree," that rose to number 35 on the charts late that spring. This was a good beginning, but it was their second single, "If I Had a Hammer," that marked their breakthrough. The song, written by Seeger and Hays in the days of the Weavers, was a rousing number with great hooks and a memorable chorus, and also a definite (yet not threatening) philosophical and political edge. As topical songs go, its timing was perfect -- in late 1962, the civil rights movement was becoming a concern to a growing number of middle-class onlookers; "If I Had a Hammer" embodied this zeitgeist in its most idealistic form and, with its upbeat, soulful performance -- which made it seductive even to those listeners who cared little about the political controversy of the times -- the single hit number ten on the charts. It also won the trio their first two Grammy Awards, for Best Performance by a Vocal Group and Best Folk Recording.
In their first six months of existence, Peter, Paul and Mary, working in a somewhat more favorable political climate, had managed to do what the Weavers never had a chance to do, bringing political concerns to the public through song. And it was a massive public, owing to the fact that PP&M also had a foot in the entertainment side of the folk revival -- their music had a decidedly serious edge, but it and the group were also as much fun to listen to as anything the Limeliters or the Highwaymen were doing. Their stage act, as captured on the In Concert album, poked fun at what they did and at themselves, and one couldn't help but laugh at Stookey's comedy, which drew on music, self-generated sound effects, and a self-deprecating manner second only to Woody Allen (then a standup comic himself). Additionally, although this has seldom been discussed in retrospect, they had Mary Travers, who not only had a big voice that helped make the records extraordinary, but was also drop-dead gorgeous, and a great asset in their photographs, television appearances, and concerts.
The overall effect, between the entertainment and the songs, was as though the Kingston Trio had suddenly started doing the repertoire of the Almanac Singers, and people were listening. Phil Ochs would attempt a similar but less successful approach to mixing popular music and ideology with his Gold Suit Tour, trying to turn Elvis Presley into Che Guevara. But John Phillips, at that time a folkie himself as a member of the Journeymen, would perfect the formula behind PP&M's visual appeal in 1966 with the Mamas & the Papas, by putting his wife, Michelle, an ex-model, out front in that lineup.
With "If I Had a Hammer" wafting over the AM airwaves, the Peter, Paul and Mary LP rose to number one and subsequently spent years on the charts. Their second album, Moving, released in January of 1963, got off to a slightly slower start, but it found its way to number two and a 99-week run with help from "Puff (The Magic Dragon)," a song that Peter Yarrow had written in college. The single rose to number two that spring and became one of the most beloved children's songs of all time, as well as the trio's passport through any potential controversy.
It was on the heels of that year's success that Bob Dylan entered the group's orbit. The young folksinger and songwriter -- who came under Grossman's management in 1963 -- hadn't made much impact with his own recordings on Columbia Records; his lyrics were too piercing and his voice too bluesy, in an environment dominated by much smoother folk sounds. PP&M, however, had no problem with public acceptance, and they took Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind" to the public in a way that he never could have. Their recording, released in June of 1963, was an instant hit, shipping over 300,000 copies in less than two weeks -- many times the number of records that Dylan himself had sold up that point -- and eventually rising to number two on the charts. Once more, the trio seemed to grab the moment in history, politics, and art with a song. The era of public activism over civil rights, directed at the administration of President Kennedy, was rising to new heights, and "Blowin' in the Wind" embodied the spirit of the time. In one fell swoop, it established Bob Dylan as the new conscience of a generation, and PP&M as the voice of that conscience, culminating with their performance of the song at the same August 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech.
The trio's third album, In the Wind, which was released in October 1963, not only hit number one on the charts but pulled their two previous albums back into the Top Ten with it. Up to this point, all of the trio's successes took place during a relatively quiet time in popular music, in which there was little distraction from rock & roll. With the exception of Elvis Presley and a handful of newer acts such as the Beach Boys and Del Shannon, the music was going through one of its periodic flat periods, which had left the field open to folk acts like Peter, Paul and Mary. All of that changed as 1964 dawned.
Suddenly, PP&M found themselves competing with the Beatles and other groups out of England, playing a new, forceful, and relatively sophisticated brand of rock & roll. Peter, Paul and Mary were the only folk-revival group to survive the British Invasion and the ensuing folk-rock boom with their audience and visibility largely intact. Their record sales slackened somewhat, especially their singles, which had a hard time competing on AM radio with the sounds of the British Invasion, and it was three years before they would enjoy another Top Ten hit. Their albums, however, continued selling well, and their bookings never dropped off.
One of the reasons for their continued success, popularity, and relevance was a series of political and historical events separate from the music. The civil rights movement was still going strong as the battleground shifted from the Lincoln Memorial to the back roads of Mississippi -- where three college students who had come to help register black voters were murdered in 1964 -- to the halls of Congress. The murder of President Kennedy in November of 1963 and Lyndon Johnson's ascent to the presidency began a series of events that finally forced meaningful civil rights legislation out of Congress. Even as that battle continued raging in the streets, from Birmingham, AL, to Cicero, IL, and other points north. Once the laws were on the books, however, Johnson's presidency also opened up a new political wound on the American landscape with his escalation of the Vietnam War. In that uneasy environment, Peter, Paul and Mary had the history of involvement, the credentials, and the credibility to address this new issue in ways that, say, the Kingston Trio never could have, even if they'd wanted to. Moreover, their records had a way of not only staying relevant -- "If I Had a Hammer" was as topical in 1965 as it had been in 1962, but it was still fun to sing around a campfire -- but evolving in their relevancy; as the Vietnam War ran on, and draft notices and departures for the military and service overseas became more commonplace, cuts like the beautiful "500 Miles," off of their debut album, took on deeply personal resonances for tens, and then hundreds of thousands of people.
For the remainder of the decade, the trio walked a fine line, appealing to liberals and antiwar activists, and raising the consciousness of the interested, but also entertaining middle-of-the-road listeners, and especially to parents who felt their music was safe for younger children. They were accomplishing precisely what the Weavers had set out to do a decade and a half earlier (and, not coincidentally, also exactly what the Weavers' political opponents had feared the latter group would do, spreading liberal ideas and politics on the popular landscape with pretty music).
Their commercial fortunes and mass appeal remained intact into the second half of the decade. The album In Concert, an unprecedented (for a folk group) double LP, hit number four during the summer and fall of 1964, and the group's next studio LP, A Song Will Rise got to number eight in the spring of 1965. At the same time, however, its highest-charting single, "For Lovin' Me," only reached number 30. See What Tomorrow Brings peaked at number 11 in late 1965, their first placement outside of the Top Ten with an LP, but hardly unrespectable. By 1966, PP&M were feeling the pressure to embellish their music, however, and began adding significant numbers of backup musicians to their records, and exploring more rock-oriented sounds, on The Peter, Paul and Mary Album and, later, Album 1700. Those albums were considered solidly competitive in the musical environment of 1966 and 1967, amid the sounds of folk-rock and psychedelic rock of the era, and both have held up better than those by most of the competition, mostly owing to the quality of the music and the songs.
From the beginning of its history, the trio displayed an uncanny ear for great songs and songwriters -- Stookey had steered Grossman to Bob Dylan before many people in Greenwich Village had even heard of him. And in early 1962, before their debut album had even been released, the Kingston Trio had picked up a then-new Pete Seeger song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," from one of the group's live performances and had a hit with it. During the years 1965-1966, Peter, Paul and Mary gave the first serious airings to the music of Gordon Lightfoot ("For Lovin' Me"), Laura Nyro ("And When I Die"), and John Denver ("For Baby (Goes Bobbie)"), interspersed with the occasional unrecorded Dylan tune, such as "When the Ship Comes In" and "Too Much of Nothing." Their sales might not have matched the chart-soaring days of 1963, but the albums had the class, beauty, and substance to stand the test of time.
And when they caught the moment again with a song, the trio proved that they could sell records with the best of them. "I Dig Rock 'n' Roll Music," written by Paul Stookey, brought PP&M back to the upper reaches of the charts and heavy AM radio play with a number nine single in the fall of 1967, right in the middle of the psychedelic boom. The song, which parodied the styles of the Beatles, the Mamas & the Papas, and Donovan, was not only catchy and memorable, but also a reminder to the public that, for all of their devotion to causes and issues, Peter, Paul and Mary was a very funny group as well. For much of the year that followed this commercial comeback, the group was involved in politics, in the form of Senator Eugene McCarthy's antiwar campaign for the White House. They appeared on behalf of McCarthy, and even released a record supporting him. McCarthy's candidacy ultimately failed, in a year that also saw the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, though one personal, positive byproduct of the peace campaign was that Peter Yarrow ended up marrying the senator's daughter.
In 1969, they returned to the middle of the charts again with Yarrow's "Day Is Done," a surprisingly autumnal work. They also chalked up another Grammy Award that year for Peter, Paul and Mommy, an album of children's songs that became a mainstay of their catalog, reaching generation after generation of parents and children. During the summer of 1969, Warner Bros. got word that DJs around the country had begun playing one of the tracks off of the then two-year-old Album 1700, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," authored by John Denver. Released that September, the single "Leaving on a Jet Plane" peaked at number one, the trio's only chart-topping single, and also pulled Album 1700 back onto the list of top-selling LPs.
By 1970, PP&M had played many hundreds of concerts together and had spent nine years in harness to each other. It was inevitable that there would be a split at some point, given their different, evolving lives. Mary Travers was now the mother of two daughters, Yarrow was newly married, and Stookey, in addition to wanting to work with new and different musical sounds, had developed a serious belief in Christianity. Amid a flurry of sales behind "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and the release in the spring of Ten Years Together: The Best of Peter, Paul and Mary (which rose to number 15), the trio completed their concert obligations and announced in the fall of 1970 that they were taking a year's sabbatical from Peter, Paul and Mary.
The next eight years saw the three musicians release various solo recordings that failed to catch the public's attention in anything resembling PP&M's impact. Mary Travers continued working in a folk-pop vein for a time, while Peter Yarrow wrote topical songs dealing with the politics of the time, and Paul Stookey proved the most adventurous of the three musically, exploring harder rock sounds as well as jazz, and delving into Christian-oriented music. They moved around each other's orbits, appearing on each other's albums occasionally and even reuniting on behalf of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, but it was clear by the late '70s that none of them had enough of an audience on his own to sustain a full-time performing career. Travers moved from Warner Bros. to Chrysalis Records, and to a very brief stay with the Arista label, all without any hits, while Yarrow enjoyed a hit as a songwriter with "Torn Between Two Lovers," and also saw one of his '70s compositions, "River of Jordan," turn up in the 1980 comedy film Airplane, sung by Lorna Patterson in an excruciatingly funny scene.
This was all a long way from their 1960s heyday, and a 1978 reunion album also proved a false start, selling more poorly than any LP in their history. The concerts surrounding that album, however, marked the beginning of a gradual re-forming of the trio. Travers, a single mother with two daughters and a menagerie of pets to look after, was nonetheless concerned with the antinuclear movement, with which Yarrow had long been involved. Stookey rejoined after some hesitation, and by the early '80s Peter, Paul and Mary were a functioning trio again, playing concerts occasionally and trying to record, including their annual Christmas concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. Without skipping a beat, they picked up from their early-'60s beginnings, only the civil rights anthems had new meaning in an era when the laws protecting those rights were under attack by the Reagan administration. And they were interspersed with songs about the political strife in El Salvador and the nuclear arms race. As long as they included "Puff (The Magic Dragon)" in their repertoire, however, the trio was still largely immune from attack by the right. The real difficulty was getting their work heard by a larger public in the music environment of the 1980s.
By that late date, none of the major labels were interested in the work of folk groups of their vintage so they did it themselves, initially releasing the live reunion album Such Is Love on their own Peter, Paul and Mary label. They were associated with Gold Castle Records, a promising independent label, for much of the late '80s, until its failure, but they did get to record a handful of LPs that they ended up owning outright. They retained good relations with Warner Bros., sufficient for Peter Yarrow to personally supervise the digital remastering and transfer of their classic 1960s catalog to compact disc at the end of the 1980s. Finally, in 1992, some 30 years after the trio signed with them, Warner Bros. Records became interested in doing a follow-up to Peter, Paul and Mommy, which had been a perennially good seller in its catalog. The resulting album, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too and an accompanying television special heralded a return of PP&M to Warner Bros., which subsequently reissued their entire Gold Castle catalog on CD.
After the 1980s, the group had been moving into the role of elder statesmen of the folk community -- Mary Travers even hosted a television special that brought together the entire present and former membership of the Kingston Trio on-stage -- and this status was borne out in 1995 with the Lifelines album. The latter, an all-star concept album featuring the trio performing with colleagues, older and younger -- including ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert and blues legend B.B. King -- was sufficiently successful to generate a concert follow-up, Lifelines Live, the following year. In 1998, they carried the same all-star singalong concept a step further, in a slightly different direction, with Around the Campfire, and in 1999, Warner Bros. issued its second PP&M best-of compilation, Songs of Conscience & Concern. In 2004, Travers was diagnosed with leukemia and eventually underwent a bone-marrow transplant, but the trio resumed performing by the following year. Successive tours followed during the 2000s until news appeared in 2009 that Travers' leukemia had re-emerged. She began chemotherapy, but died of complications on September 16th of that year. Yarrow and Stookey, as a tribute to Travers, turned next to a project the trio had been discussing before her death -- adding fresh symphonic orchestrations to live tracks of the group from several 1980s and 1990s concerts. The resulting album, The Prague Sessions, appeared early in 2010. ~ Bruce Eder