Discovering Peter, Paul, and Mary

(for KDHX) I suspect that there are lots of things that the average person doesn’t know about Peter, Paul, and Mary. We think of them, if we think of them at all, as earnest and goofy, perhaps due to the persona of the most visible of the three these days, Peter Yarrow. On stage he can raise cringes due to a sincerity that is so arch it begins to backfire on itself, much like a car salesman’s statements of great mileage. And, fairly or unfairly, the media has never let us forget that he is a convicted sex offender.

More generally, the trio was formed in the same way that the Monkeys were, by an agent who sought to build an act to promote into a market that was ripe for it. All three—Noel Stookey, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow—were part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s, though Albert Grossman was drawn to them specifically because each remained virtually unknown. The market he was aiming at was the one that the Kingston Trio was monopolizing—a national, young audience of people who wanted to get on a bandwagon. Grossman wanted to supply them the boost. The songs were smart, modern for the most part, and he chose Travers for her sex appeal.

Curiously, he asked Dave Van Ronk to be the third to Yarrow and Travers, though he declined. “I would have stood out like sore thumb,” Van Ronk admitted, rightly, in his fantastic autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Of course Noel got the nod, at which point the three went into seclusion for seven months, working up a repertoire relying heavily on Milt Okun arrangements. Then they played the Bitter End in Greenwich Village as if they were just three kids walking by with some songs to sing. The first album shows them there, with their names chalked on the brick wall behind them.

Grossman, of course, was in the business of making money, not music, something he had a decided knack for. The formula came first, then the band, though that was not generally known at the time, as it would have appeared crass. But, if we are being honest about Peter, Paul and Mary, we have to also admit that it worked. There is a skill there, and a delivery, that was seminal then and remains impressive and effective today. They weren’t great guitar players, but together, the whole far exceeded the sum of the parts. Vocally, it was a beautiful mix, with Mary’s voice seeking the low register while, elsewhere, women folkies were seeking the stratosphere. Mary flipped her hair, threw her head back, and belted it out. Love it.

Of course, we can’t think of them today in the same way as audiences would have then. Not with the intervening years, the children’s material, the campfire scenes, the PBS specials, Stookey’s monologues, Yarrow’s colonoscopy song. They are the model for the Folksmen in “The Mighty Wind”—Michael McKean recalled that during a festival at UCLA “Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary looked at us and muttered, ‘Too close, too close.’” It’s true that the Folksmen didn’t have to do much to send up Peter, Paul and Mary, with them doing such a great job at it themselves. If at first they were sexy, as the decades moved on, they became Muppets.

Part of the reason that we perhaps view them harshly—and why the Folksmen can be so funny—is that we typically don’t look to kind people for inspiration or entertainment. As Peter Yarrow said in an interview, we look to people like “Paris Hilton, who take pleasure in their disfunctionality, or Donald Trump who takes pleasure in being a bully.”[1] We doubt kindness, which is one of the reasons why the media loves to remind us of that 1970 Peter Yarrow conviction. We live in a cynical age, and Peter Paul and Mary, throughout their careers, simply refused to. The liner notes to their first release praises the songs as “strong with the perfume of sincerity.” That’s funny. But it’s true. They are. That’s one of the reasons they are powerful.

This is true, too: their early albums are simply fantastic, and as worth our attention now as they were when they were first released. The first eponymous album, A Song Will Rise, See What Tomorrow Brings—in the length and breadth of American folk music, these albums simply demand a place.

This fall, impossibly, there is a new Peter, Paul and Mary album, Discovered. No, it’s not really new, but rather a selection of live recordings from the early 80s, well into the trio’s downward slide into mockumentary fodder. What is new, though, is that none of the songs collected here ever made it onto an album despite being common in their live repertoire. “You Can Tell the World” is a song that Simon and Garfunkel made famous, or as famous as it ever was, and the recording here is alive, energetic, and captures the energy that PP&M brought to the stage even two decades in.

The album, perhaps inevitably, shows the whole  spectrum of their material, including the kooky, as in “Parallel Universe,” and the toddler humor, as in “Space Suits.” Yes, as always, for the fan, these things can be an exercise in endurance if not outright doubt.

But it also very happily shows their strengths, principally to be better together than apart, as on “Show the Way” and “Midnight Special.” It’s a reminder of that ability to step out on stage with two guitars, three mics, goofy jokes, silly asides, sub-par solo voices, and nevertheless proceed to entertain us for two hours and to send us out into the night with a few more songs to sing. It’s nice, too, to be reminded that some people dedicated themselves to sincerity, and hope, and kindness. Yes, that sounds funny, but it’s true. This album won’t keep you coming back again and again in the way that the early albums will, but it’s a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon.



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