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Digging Peter, Paul and Mary
An essay on one of folk music's most important popularizers and how their music changed between 1966 and 1968
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’! A warm welcome especially to those who have recently subscribed. Thank you for being here!
This edition’s essay spotlights one of the best popularizers of the sixties folk boom: Peter, Paul and Mary. I especially focus on how their music shifted between 1966 and 1968: three years of profound growth and experimentation in pop music. It is a period of time that is not typically seen as the trio’s best years but how they incorporated elements of rock, baroque and even psychedelia into their music was often very interesting and deserving of wider recognition. I hope you enjoy it.
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As a piece of satire, ‘I Dig Rock and Roll Music’ is not entirely on the square. Its target is the emergent, sophisticated pop of the late sixties. Praise for it is offered glibly (“it’s about the happiest sound goin’ down today”) and sarcastically (“they got a good thing goin’ when the words don’t get in the way”). The Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and the Beatles are all name dropped. Touches such as a backwards guitar and mimicking Donovan’s often twee-sounding voice as well as the vocal effects on both the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ and the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Even If I Could’ edge the song into a finely honed pastiche.
It was not the first time that Peter, Paul and Mary had fun at the expense of rock-and-roll music. A skit adapting the folk standard ‘Blue’ that took a jab at the exuberance of Beatlemania was included on their 1964 live LP and two years later, the James Bond phenomena and the Johnny Rivers hit ‘Secret Agent Man’ (itself a comment on the 007 craze) were sent up on ‘Norman Normal.’ Both, heard more than a half century later, fall flat. ‘I Dig Rock and Roll Music’ is another matter.
While its viewpoint is expressed perhaps less than artfully, it is undeniably listenable and demonstrates a mastery and an enjoyment of the very music the song is allegedly lampooning. There are moments of sly cleverness that may escape a casual listen. After the trio sings “I think I could say somethin’ if you know what I mean / but if I really say it, the radio won’t play it / unless I lay it between the lines,” then delivers the punchline by harmonizing wordlessly for the remainder of the song.
In its own way, ‘I Dig Rock and Roll Music’ forms a parallel (at least to me, however improbably) with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s debut Freak Out! in which the wit is savage and the music is pop craft of the highest order (well, at least the first two sides of it). What’s ironic is when considering Peter, Paul and Mary’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek denigration of manufactured pop music is that they were, in fact, a manufactured group themselves.
It was folk impresario Albert Grossman’s idea to create a new singing group in the mold of the groundbreaking the Weavers. Peter Yarrow, among the many aspiring young singers trying to make it in the burgeoning Greenwich Village scene in early sixties New York, learned of what Grossman was trying to do and it was a picture of Mary Travers, also on the Village scene, that caught Yarrow’s eye. Grossman suggested they try to sing together. They did and discovered their voices blended well together. To complete the threesome, Travers thought of Noel Stookey, the master of ceremonies of the Gaslight Café and an all-around entertainer. Using Stookey’s middle name, Paul, they became christened as Peter, Paul and Mary.
If the dividing line of folk in the sixties was between those who were purists and those who were popularizers, Peter, Paul and Mary were undeniably in the latter camp. But, that characterization, while capturing the essence of their music—folk with a broadened, purposefully mass appeal—and their success—their first four albums were all in the Billboard top five—as well as that their hit version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in 1963 accelerated Dylan’s ascension as the bard of his generation, also connotes, perhaps, that they should be lumped in with contemporaneous popularizers such as the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four and the New Christy Minstrels. Nonsense. It inflates the calculation that sometimes underlined the trio’s music and deflates the reasons for their deep popularity. The music that they made together, especially early on, was accessible while also being firmly rooted in the folk tradition. There was also the transcendent blend of their voices: the mellifluousness of Stookey’s baritone contrasting the earnestness of Yarrow’s tenor; the combination of the two leaving room for Travers’ contralto to punch through.
They could sum up power—their breakthrough cover of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ ‘If I Had a Hammer’ wields its message with truth and heft. They could whip up a frenzy as on their interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘If I Had My Way’ (the song’s verses are also known as ‘Samson and Delilah’). They could also create a tenderness that was warm and comforting. A pure example is ‘It’s Raining,’ a merging of several nursery rhymes that is both childlike—hear Travers’ invitation to a game of hide and seek—and cognizant of the fragility of that innocence with Stookey’s somber interpretation of ‘Ladybird, Ladybird.’
All three were part of their debut album, released on Warner Bros. Records in 1962 and one of the best-selling albums of that year. Peter, Paul and Mary soon became America’s best-known folk outfit, both tame enough to appear on shows like The Jack Benny Program and What’s My Line? and sufficiently devoted to the causes of the time to be among the performers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
They were also emblematic of the belief that a certain piety was intrinsic to folk music: the sound should be acoustic and eschew amplification. Its days of accepted dogma were arguably numbered the moment the Beatles touched down in America in February 1964, bringing a tidal wave of youthful exuberance and insurgent energy that largely rewrote the rulebook of popular music, catching innumerable artists in the undertow, Peter, Paul and Mary included. Its requiem was sounded at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan plugged in with a pick-up group comprised of three-fifths of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band plus Barry Goldberg and Al Kooper. In the midst of the maelstrom—exactly how many festivalgoers were outraged and whether Pete Seeger actually wanted to take an axe to the Festival’s sound system have achieved a Rashomon-like fluidity of interpretation—was Yarrow who was the emcee that fateful evening and who eventually, in an effort to calm the crowd, whether they were reacting to Dylan’s performance or the PA’s inability to handle the onslaught, convinced Dylan to play a solo encore of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Some say that much of the booing that night was directed at Yarrow himself for being more concerned with keeping Dylan’s set to its tight timeslot than giving more of what part of the audience wanted.
While Dylan pointed the way ahead for the vanguard of the folk movement, Peter, Paul and Mary were left as more staid traditionalists, holding tight to their activist idealism despite their clean-cut appearance (in many ways, they were a blueprint for the Smothers Brothers and their sharply political, revolutionary, and eventually censored and cancelled CBS show). And yet, as popular music became more experimental and expansive, the trio did not exactly stand pat. Starting with the release of The Peter, Paul and Mary Album in late 1966, their music engaged, often tentatively but rarely gratuitously, with the broader counterculture of which there were aligned, at least politically if not socially, producing a body of music that adds depth to their legacy.
On that LP, tucked within more traditional material like ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,’ which featured the warmth of when Yarrow, Stookey and Travers harmonized, ‘Pick Up Your Sorrows,’ Richard and Mimi Fariña’s signature song offered here as a tribute to Richard who died tragically in 1966 in a motorcycle accident and the first cover of a Laura Nyro song (‘And When I Die’) and among of the first of a John Denver song (‘For Bobbie,’ retitled here as ‘For Baby’), were moments when Peter, Paul and Mary veered ever so slightly into new directions.
On ‘Sometime Lovin’,’ they are backed up by members of the Nashville A-Team who brought fire and fury to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, including Kenneth Buttrey on drums and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano. Here, the flame is but a flicker. Buttrey’s brushes and Robbins’ impressionistic runs provide a delicate bed for Yarrow’s soft lead. The gentle swell of sound as Stookey and Travers join in is calming, therapeutic. When they sing of “peace of mind” as they do on ‘The Good Times We Had,’ ornamented with woodwinds, it is a sonic footprint that goes a long way to explaining their enduring appeal.
The most successful infusion of pop on The Peter, Paul and Mary Album is the light, bluesy take of Fred Neil’s ‘The Other Side of This Life.’ Bobby Gregg’s drums and Ernie Hayes’ electric piano establish an emphatic beat for Stookey’s laid-back lead. Travers adds a countermelody on the second verse and Yarrow lags behind on the fourth soulfully, creating an canon effect. It contains the vital seed to how Peter, Paul and Mary could further develop their sound. By contrast, the Yarrow-led ‘The King of Names’ verges almost into parody, the uneasy alliance struck with members of the Butterfield Blues Band who appear on the track, including Michael Bloomfield on guitar who remains impenetrably in the background, recreating the tension of Dylan at Newport in ’65.
Butterfield’s harmonica—such a potent, wailing messenger of the blues—was put to far better use on Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of Eric Andersen’s ‘Rolling Home,’ which opens their 1967 LP Album 1700. His obbligatos—adding sighs and moments of rest on a brisk recording—dovetails with a vocal arrangement that illustrates the many colourations that the trio could offer. Similar to ‘The Other Side of This Life,’ Stookey starts off on the lead with Travers and Yarrow harmonizing in the background. Travers soon adds a harmony vocal and Yarrow chimes in with mellow asides; all three join together for the triumphant chorus. It is a well-chosen table setter for an album in which their aesthetic boundaries continued to draw wider.
A cover of ‘Bob Dylan’s Blues’ is a throwback to their earlier days as is Stookey’s ‘No Other Name’ where Travers wraps herself around the rises and falls of the melody. ‘I’m in Love With a Big Blue Frog’ is pure novelty and reminds that Peter, Paul and Mary’s veneer of seriousness was sometimes just that. They had a playful side too.
Like others in the folk field, the traditional songs were bring superseded by the songs the array of troubadours raised on them were writing to build atop the canon’s warhorses. None of the songs that Stookey or Yarrow wrote for Album 1700 could be said to be part of its bedrock but ‘The House Song,’ which Stookey co-wrote with Robert Barnard, has a spectral lustre that results from the judicious application of psychedelic processing so that the lines sung by Travers and Yarrow float, ghost-like, on top of a baroque arrangement featuring Paul Winter on flute. Yarrow’s ‘The Great Mandella [sp] (The Wheel of Life)’ is spiritual in a more profound way. It's a meditation on conscientious objection to the Vietnam War and the lengths that the song’s protagonist, always referred to in the third petson, goes to hold fast to his convictions, eventually dying as a martyr to the cause. Even as the third verse disrupts the deeply poetic parable, the refrain: “take your place on the great Mandella [sp] / as it moves through your brief moment of time / win or lose now, you must choose now / and if you lose, you're only losing your life” reminds of everyone’s chance to take part in the passionate play of life.
‘I Dig Rock and Roll Music’ was the big hit from the album (‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ was an even bigger smash, however, when it was put out on a 45 in late 1969). Peter, Paul and Mary’s follow-up single was a cover of Dylan’s ‘Too Much of Nothing,’ among the tranche of new songs that emerged during his reclusive interlude following his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. It signified the trio’s complete absorption of pop and rock—a diving in with both feet that is a triumph of transmogrification. The verses are funky—Travers is double tracked and latches onto the beat, relaying Dylan’s warning like a prophet of doom, Yarrow and Stookey singing in affirmation, often lagging a bit behind. The chorus, in which the trio, somewhat controversially, switched out Dylan’s “Vivian” for “Marian,” is sung as a chorale, the trio weaving in and out of each other, ending on a sustained syllable before the funk beat kicks up again and Travers lays more revelations on us all. It sets the mood for the album on which it appeared, Late Again, completing the trilogy of Peter, Paul and Mary’s explorations away from folk. It is a culmination that is deeply interesting and frequently fascinating.
That is, of course, not to say that it is all interesting and fascinating. The gospel-infused version of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ is over the top, for example, particularly in the strident backing by a trio of female singers. It pales beside the immaculate conception of the Band’s interpretation which closed Music From Big Pink. Much better is the tranquility of Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason to Believe’ where full measure is given to the lyrics by Travers and Yarrow, who share the lead.
Even better is when Peter, Paul and Mary embrace the album’s ethos of going for broke. The cadre of musicians engaged for Late Again speaks to its risky, expansive and variegated spirit. On the back cover is a list of who played on the album. The names that jump out include guitarists Gene Bertoncini and Elvin Bishop, drummers Herb Lovelle, Skip Prokop (credited here under his given name, Ronald) and Bernard Purdie, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, pianists Paul Griffin, Herbie Hancock (credited as Herbert (!)) and Nashville’s Robbins, jacks-of-all-trades Charlie McCoy and John Simon, and harpist Margaret Ross among others.
Collectively, they create music in the pop and rock vein that could be best described as confessional cinematic coffee house.
‘Moments of Soft Persuasion,’ originally recorded by Yarrow for the documentary You Are What You Eat (truly a product of its time), wafts in with muted colours, especially on the chorus where the slightest hint of brass adds melancholic power to its climax. Stookey’s ‘Love City (Postcards to Duluth)’ contains the kind of yearning that made Jimmy Webb a go-to songwriter for that type of mood. The vignettes of a man leaving his lover are told with pathos; a soft, almost indistinct, rumble of drums accentuate the sadness. ‘Apologize’ features memorable trumpet fanfares and an appealing walking beat, and ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’ is an intriguing stab at baroque pop. Late Again closes with ‘Rich Man, Poor Man.’ Its chorus: “a rich man eats when he wishes, a poor man, whenever he can” is hard to shake. It sounds comforting even if its message is one of the harsh realities of life.
‘Day is Done,’ released as a single in the spring of 1969, recognizes them in addition to reflecting on the turmoil of the year that had just passed. It promises “if you take my hand, my son / all we will be well when the day is done.” Sung with a huge chorus, it offers the reassurance that everything will ultimately be all right. It’s of the spirit of ‘The Song is Love,’ which was the closing cut of Album 1700. It encapsulates where Peter, Paul and Mary best fit in the lineage of folk and of music generally. Together, they sing:
“I’ve found a song, let me sing it with you
Let me say it now, while the meaning is true
But wouldn’t it be good if we could sing it together?
Don’t be afraid to sing me your mind
Sing about the joy that I know we can find
Wind them around and see what you sound like together.
The song is love…”
- From ‘The Song is Love,’ written by Dave Dixon, Richard Kniss, Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers
There’s truth in these words as there was in much of what Peter, Paul and Mary sang about. It keeps shining through even as the times have changed. It’s why I dig Peter, Paul and Mary’s music.