Peter, Paul & Mary were launched during an unusually creative period in popular music. Peter 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 a 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 Peter 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 the 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 the Chicago "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 Brothers 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." The Trio's 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 Peter, Paul & Mary, and for the contemporary urban folk tradition which they personified. In the third week of November 1963, Peter, Paul & Mary had 3 albums on the Billboard Top 6. Also in 1963, their recording of "Puff, The Magic Dragon" written 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.
The song, "Puff, The Magic Dragon" was actually the center of contriversy when it was first released. At the time, the drug culture was making headlines and some radio stations mis-took the lyrics and refused to play the song. Years later, Paul Stookie laughed as he explained that the song is the story of a little boy growing up and had nothing at all to do with marijuana.
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 Peter, Paul & Mary's popularity, their 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 a watershed period for personal growth, the group disbanded, and each member began pursuing individual interests. Stookey's spiritual commitment led him to pen "The Wedding Song," leading to eight solo recordings including a Grammy nomination and the creation of 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 #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 which 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 about 45 dates a year as a 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 Trio's current concerns. Their first-hand accounts of the sufferings they witnessed in Central America gave special meaning to Stookey's "El Salvador," 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 1986 released album 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 at the vangard of artists who worked to raise the public's awareness of homelessness. Their opening night of a week on Broadway was a fundraiser 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 fundraisers 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, the Trio was 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.
In 1992, Peter, Paul & Mary re-signed with Warner Brothers Records, their first label, and recorded "Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too," their second children's album. "Peter, Paul & 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 with 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 the successive generations, of which there are now four, all a part of the Trio'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."
The Trio has a achieved its remarkable status by never wavering from its earliest commitment to the spirit of the folk music tradition they 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 inherent in a music filled with stories from the past, love 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, filled with hope and free of cynicism. "People can overcome their differences, and when united, move towards a world of greater fairness and justice," says Peter. "As in folk music, each person has a unique role to play." Peter, Paul & Mary have collectively and individually, lived the reality that each person can, and does, make a difference.
Peter, Paul & Mary's newest album is a 25-song anthology that celebrates the community-in-song that can come only from sitting around a campfire. Bringing together some of their best-known songs from the past 35 years, Around The Campfire is the perfect soundtrack for a hearthside sing-along. Included are such fireside folk-song favorites as "This Land Is Your Land" and "If I Had A Hammer," as well as Peter, Paul & Mary standards like "Leaving On A Jet Plane" and "Puff (The Magic Dragon)."
Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers, Paul Stookie in the sixties
Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers, Paul Stookie in the nineties