Peter, Paul & Mary Biography
Last updated: 04/11/2012 12:00:00 PM
It was 38 years ago this year when three folk singers combined talents and made their debut at Greenwich Village's Bitter End coffee house. What began there has become a legacy, shared by people all over the world who are now on a first name basis with Peter, Paul & Mary. With many albums, Grammy awards and esteemed television shows behind them, they continue to embrace the family of folk music, singing new songs written by the "old soul" poets of today as well as traditional ballads drawn from the great folk heritage they still honor and enjoy.
The release of their new Warner Bros. CD, Songs Of Conscience & Concern, signals the arrival of a collection of 15 of their most powerful and evocative songs, culled from nine different albums (of the 20 they have released over their near 40-year association) and featuring one newly recorded song, "Don't Laugh At Me." Peter, Paul & Mary chose to include "hidden treasures," not necessarily their most famous, but songs that especially move and inspire them, although for anyone who lived through the'60's and '70's, many of these songs are recognizable -- and for anyone with heart or ears to hear, they are deeply affecting.
Among Songs Of Conscience & Concern are the always relevant and especially timely "Because All Men Are Brothers"; Woody Guthrie's hymn from The Great Depression, "'Pastures Of Plenty"; the delightful ode to racial harmony "All Mixed Up," penned by folk legend Pete Seeger; and the tragically beautiful and melodically haunting, "Coming Of The Roads."
The songs on this album reflect the essence of what has made Peter, Paul & Mary a national treasure. It is not a simple mix, on one hand challenging atomic power and the machinery of war in "Power" and "If I Were Free," and yet singing, "This land I'll defend with my life if need be,'cause my pastures of plenty must always be free." Theirs is not an insipid political correctness, seeking peace at any price, but a passionate belief that calls upon people to live with a commitment to truth, freedom and equality.
Compassion rings through on songs like "Danny's Downs," and the only newly recorded song, "Don't Laugh At Me." The latter, they hope, will be a catalyst for understanding through use by organizations that focus on children with special needs, gifts and/or disabilities; those groups that offer after-school programs in marginalized communities, as well as national and international associations that benefit children.
Having their music associated with causes and solutions is life as usual for Peter, Paul and Mary. The issue of song content and message and the action it generates are all equally important to them and lie at the heart of their story. In music and in deed, they placed themselves on the front lines of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Today, their individual and collective efforts focus on crucial issues such as gun violence against children, the rights and organizing efforts of strawberry pickers in California, homelessness and world hunger. Not surprisingly, Peter Paul & Mary are donating a portion of the proceeds of Songs Of Conscience & Concern to The Center for Constitutional Rights (advances human rights), The Children's Defense Fund (works to meet children's needs) and Oxfam (fights global hunger). As Mary Travers notes, "We've always been involved with issues that deal with the fundamental human rights of people, whether that means the right to political freedom or the right t
o breathe air that's clean."
Since its inception, the Trio has been a union of distinctly different artists committed to common goals. Yarrow,Stookey and Travers each have separate interests and impressive solo projects which they've pursued in addition to their career together. What unites them is a mutual respect and shared affection for the "Seeger's Raiders" tradition of folk music. They see this music as being, by definition, one of activism and hope.
Peter, Paul & Mary were launched during an unusually creative period in popular music. Yarrow, who had come to Greenwich Village with a psychology degree from Cornell, recalls that, "The Village in the early 1960s was a crucible of creativity. Involvement in music was a matter of joyous discovery, not business. We knew that folk music was having an enormous impact in the Village, but was a couple of years away from being embraced on a national scale."
At the same time, the Village was a starting place for Noel Paul Stookey, a fledgling stand-up comic from Michigan State University. He met up with Peter and independently, Mary Travers, who was already known for her work in the "Song Swappers," a folk group that had recorded with Pete Seeger. Having grown up in the Village, the flaxen-haired singer was a familiar figure at the Washington Square Sunday singing event. The three decided to work together, encouraged by folk impresario Albert Grossman, who became their manager.
After rehearsing for seven months in Travers' three-flight walk-up apartment, Peter, Paul & Mary premiered at the Bitter End in 1961 and then played at other seminal folk clubs like Chicago's Gate of Horn and San Francisco's Hungry i. Following their appearance at the famed Blue Angel nightclub in New York, they embarked on a rigorous touring schedule that lasted nearly ten straight years.
1962 marked the Trio's debut on Warner Bros. Records with Peter, Paul And Mary, which brought folk music to the vast American public and to the top of the charts. As Billboard magazine noted, "It became an instant classic. The album was in the Top 10 for ten months, remained in the Top 20 for two years, and did not drop off the Hot 100 album charts until three-and-a-half years after its release." Their version of "If I Had a Hammer" was not only a popular single from this LP, it was also embraced as an anthem of the civil rights movement.
This success marked the beginning of an incredibly influential time for the group, and for the contemporary urban folk tradition which they personified. In the third week of November 1963, Peter, Paul & Mary had three albums on the Billboard Top 6. That same year, their recording of "Puff (the Magic Dragon)" by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton won the hearts of millions, while their recording of "Blowin' In The Wind" helped introduce a fellow Village songwriter named Bob Dylan. It was folk music that was to spark the imagination and the passion of a generation intent on social change.
But Peter, Paul & Mary did more in those times than chronicle events-they lived their songs. In 1963, they stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and in Washington. They were deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War crusade, consistently performing at demonstrations, fund-raisers and "teach-ins." In 1969, Yarrow co-organized the March On Washington, and Peter, Paul & Mary sang before the half-million people who had come together for that landmark event.
By virtue of their popularity, Peter, Paul & Mary's recordings effectively introduced the work of important new writing talents to the American public. Their renditions of Gordon Lightfoot's "In the Early Morning Rain" and John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane," engineered by the legendary Phil Ramone, helped launch an appreciation and awareness of these new artists. By 1970, Peter, Paul & Mary had earned eight gold and five platinum albums.
That same year, needing some time for personal growth, the group disbanded, and each member began pursuing individual interests. Stookey's spiritual commitment led him to pen "The Wedding Song," make eight solo recordings (one of which received a Grammy nomination) and create a multi-media organization that is still involved in a variety of children's computer, television and music projects. Mary Travers recorded five albums; produced, wrote and starred in a BBC television series; and lectured and concertized across the country. Peter concentrated on political activism and solo music projects, and also co-wrote and produced the No. 1 hit for Mary McGregor, "Torn Between Two Lovers." His three animated specials for CBS television based on "Puff (The Magic Dragon)" earned Yarrow an Emmy nomination.
Not unexpectedly, it was an important cause that reunited Peter, Paul & Mary in 1978. Peter was helping to organize Survival Sunday, an anti-nuclear benefit at the Hollywood Bowl, and he asked Noel and Mary to join him on stage. "We hadn't sung together in six years," Mary recalls. "We realized that we'd missed each other personally and musically, so we decided to try a limited reunion tour. We wanted to work together enough to have it be a meaningful part of our lives, but not so much that it wouldn't be fun."
The balance they've struck finds them dividing their time now between group and solo performances, playing around 40 dates a year as the Trio. Looking at the chemistry that's still so potent, Mary observed that "Each of us has a talent that's pivotal for the group. Peter is a patient and meticulous worker, especially when it comes to sound quality, and that commitment to excellence is what yields the best possible environment in which to be creative. Noel has a relaxed sensibility, and that's a very calming influence when it comes to adjusting to difficult situations, which happen all the time. Of course, both are talented songwriters as well. I think I bring a spontaneity, an ability to connect with them emotionally and focus our attention on having a musical conversation. I believe that if we can have that conversation, then the audience will feel included."
In keeping with the folk tradition, that "conversation" always includes new songs along with the familiar ones, and the new songs invariably reflect the group's current concerns. Their first-hand accounts of the sufferings they witnessed in Central America gave special meaning to Stookey's "El Salvador," which is included in the current collection, while Yarrow's "Light One Candle" gives voice to their support for the peace process in Israel. Both of these songs were released on an independent single in 1985, and profits went to support the Sanctuary Movement and self-determination efforts in Central America.
With "No Easy Walk to Freedom," the title track from their album released in 1986, Peter, Paul & Mary focused attention on the anti-apartheid cause, and were honored by the Free South Africa movement at a special benefit at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That same year, they were among the vanguard of artists who worked to raise the public's awareness of homelessness. Their opening night of a week on Broadway was a fund-raiser on behalf of the New York Coalition for the Homeless. These efforts all marked the group's 25-year association and culminated in their PBS special, 25th Anniversary Concert, which was broadcast in support of public television. This show has become one of the most popular specials and most successful fund-raisers in PBS history.
In 1988, Peter, Paul & Mary became the focus of yet another special for PBS with A Holiday Concert, taped before a live audience in New York City. For this performance, they were accompanied by the 160-member New York Choral Society and a 40-piece orchestra. Their renditions of holiday music were captured in A Holiday Celebration recording.
ACTIVISM - IDEALISM
The passion in their music continues to persuade. One can't listen to their songs, particularly those on Songs Of Conscience & Concern, without noticing their idealism. Reflecting on that, Stookey notes, in light of today's realities, "We live in more pragmatic times than when we originally recorded those songs. But many of the dreamers of the '60s have been elected to governmental office or taken on a leadership role in their communities. They are now in the position to make a difference."
The conviction that each of us can make a difference has continued to energize Peter, Paul and Mary's political and social activism throughout the 38 years they've been together. Having witnessed the enormous changes in society that were wrought by the early advocacies of which they were a part, notably the Civil Rights and Peace Movements, the group remains optimistic as it confronts the challenges and pervasive cynicism of our times.
In '97 Peter, Paul and Mary participated in the creation of two Public Service announcements (PSAs). The first focused on the issue of gun violence against children. Developed in tandem with the National Crime Prevention Council, the Ad Council and Saatchi & Saatchi (advertising agency), and entitled "Where Have All the Children Gone," the Trio added a new meaning to this historic anthem of peace, penned by Pete Seeger. The PSA presented images of children and families mourning children lost to gunfire. The result was a moving and effective message seen by millions of Americans. Over 1400 stations broadcast the PSA which offered a 1-800 number for viewers to request informational brochures which describe ways to combat crime in our communities and teach non-violent conflict resolution to children.
Late in the year the Trio joined with the Department of Agriculture in an effort to eradicate hunger in our country. Noting that over 96 billion pounds of food are wasted every year, the PSA encourages all Americans to do their part by participating in local "hands on" food recovery and redistribution programs or "gleaning" as it is also known. As a direct result of the ad, 2000 volunteers nationwide have joined the food recovery effort.
Most recently they have been involved in an effort to advance economic justice as it relates to the strawberry pickers of California. Faced with deplorable working conditions, back-breaking work and exposure to hamiful pesticides, the strawberry farm workers, who are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, seek the kinds of contracts won by the grape pickers in the 1960s-ones that guarantee a living wage, humane working conditions and health insurance. Peter, Paul & Mary's benefit for the UFW organizing campaign in Santa Cruz on March 19, 1998 marked the 30th anniversary of the first benefit the Trio performed for Cesar Chavez and the UFW at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1968.
Their music has linked people of different generations as well as different opinions and beliefs. This has never been more evident than in the Trio's numerous trips to Japan. Bridging two distinctly different cultures, Peter, Paul & Mary now bring a sense of their early 1960's trips to the children of their earliest fans and friends who, as in America, now share folk music "as a family."
In 1992, Peter, Paul & Mary re-signed with Warner Bros. Records, their first label, and recorded Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, their second children's album. (Peter, Paul And Mommy, released in 1969, was the name Mary's daughter Erika once gave her mother's group.) The Grammy-nominated album and video, taped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theatre in New York before a live audience of children and their families, is a full-length concert which aired as an Emmy-nominated, hour-long special on PBS, now available as a home video from Warner Reprise Video.
Youngsters from Mary's own alma mater, The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, participated in the recording. This effort is a definitive statement of the Trio's legacy as it is passed on to the successive generations, of which there are now four-all a part of the group's audience. Songs on the album include live versions of "Puff (The Magic Dragon),” “The Fox," "The Garden Song," "Blowin' In The Wind," "Inside" and "If I Had a Hammer."
Though Peter, Paul & Mary have performed for 38 years, and do celebrate the past and a sense of continuity, they continue to look ahead, evolve, and explore new musical arenas. The uniting of three generations of folk singers on their 1996 television show and album, LifeLines, offered them the opportunity to sing with their mentors, their contemporaries that started with them in Greenwich Village, and new singer/songwriters who are carrying on the time-honored folk tradition. Participants included Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, formerly of "The Weavers," Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, John Sebastian, Buddy Mondlock and Susan Werner. The vitality and resilience of the folk community was the hallmark of this memorable, creative collaboration.
As with LifeLines and Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, Peter, Paul & Mary's 1998 compilation Around the Campfire incorporated a subtext of "carrying it on." Now with Songs Of Conscience & Concern, the tradition continues.
The message, more and more, is that their music belongs to everyone. In this, their fourth decade together, Peter, Paul and Mary seek to be viewed less as performers and more as purveyors of a universal, accessible language that fosters mutual recognition, mutual validation and empowerment. As Peter says, "Particularly the children, who are so frequently marginalized, need to know they have a voice, that they can be heard-and why not a singing voice? When combined with others in school or at home, these songs dramatically demonstrate what Peter, Paul and Mary have lived and learned for 38 years: We can reach each other. We do make a difference to one another. Ultimately, we are a family."
Songs Of Conscience & Concern is more than history, more than a collection of deeply moving, truth-filled songs. It is a down-home blueprint for transformation-one small but significant part of so many people's efforts to reassert the 'cup half-full scenario' in the midst of these complex and frequently daunting times.
The Trio has achieved its remarkable status by never wavering from its earliest commitment to the spirit of the folk music tradition it inherited. As Mary says of folk songs, "The songs tell you, 'If you're going to sing me, you have to live me, too."' With all the fun and explosive joy, as well as the often troubling challenge inherent in music that's filled with stories from the past, romantic and historical ballads, children's songs and work songs, there is also a continuing thread or message that explains why Peter, Paul & Mary are still together, still filled with hope, and free of cynicism. "People can overcome their differences, and when united, move toward a world of greater fairness and justice," says Peter. "As in folk music, each person has a unique role to play." Peter, Paul and Mary have collectively and individually, lived the reality that each person can, and does, make a difference.