It was 1962. The initial surge of ‘50’s Rock & Roll had given way to lighter pop music and teen idols. There was an opening for a revival of folk music. Leading the way was a group with three singers…Peter, Paul and Mary.
Music manager Albert Grossman (who also represented Bob Dylan) had put the trio together from artists who played in Greenwich Village in New York City. Their first album, Peter, Paul and Mary, was released in May of 1962. It was filled with acoustic guitars, beautiful harmonies, and poignant lyrics.
The album went to #1 on the Billboard Top 200 for seven weeks, and stayed in the Top 10 for ten months. That was a breakthrough for folk music. Although Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey (whose first name is Noel) are both accomplished songwriters who would later write hits, this album mostly brought some classic folk songs to the masses. It included “Lemon Tree” (#35) and “If I Had A Hammer” (#10) both appearing in the Top 40 for the first time, even though the songs had been around for over a decade. Plus, the album included “500 Miles”, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”, and more traditional folk songs.
Peter Paul and Mary were building upon the success of other folk groups, like the Kingston Trio which had the hits “Tom Dooley” and “M.T.A. in the late ’50’s, and continued into the early ’60’s.
In 1963, Peter Paul and Mary had two hit albums, and three major singles. “Puff The Magic Dragon” is a song by Peter Yarrow that was based on a poem of a little boy growing up. It was not about smoking weed, which was a silly rumor, probably started by someone smoking weed. The second big hit was the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ In The Wind”. Both of those songs went to #2 on the Billboard Top 40. The third 1963 hit was “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (#9), another Bob Dylan penned song. They also recorded Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” as an album track. Dylan was not very well known, but the Peter Paul and Mary recordings brought his songwriting to the forefront.
Folk music regularly dealt with serious topics, and Peter Paul and Mary were active in the social movements of the 1960’s. For example, they performed at a march for racial equality in Selma, Alabama, and at the March On Washington (as pictured above). This is the 1963 event that included Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Prior to that speech, Peter Paul & Mary sang “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” to the large crowd.
The Folk Revival, as it was now called, was monetized by ABC Television. They developed a show called Hootenanny, which was a term used for a gathering where folk artists performed. The show was on from 1963 to 1964, and featured folk groups like The Limeliters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and The New Christy Minstrels. Hootenanny was about to be renewed in April of 1964, but there was a monumental shift in the music scene. That month, The Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Top 40. The British Invasion had wiped out the Folk Revival. Hootenanny was soon replaced by Hullabaloo and Shindig.
Peter Paul and Mary’s popularity on the charts took a hit. They wouldn’t have another Top 10 song until 1967. In the meantime, Folk Music became Folk Rock. Artists who had come from the same Greenwich Village scene, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, and Bob Dylan were now electrified and having hits. Dylan’s first major singles success came with “Like A Rolling Stone” (#2) and “Positively 4th Street” (#7) in 1965.
It wasn’t until 1967 that Peter Paul and Mary once again hit the Top 10. A song written by Noel Paul Stookey, James Mason, and Dave Dixon had some fun with the more current musical styles of The Mamas & The Papas, Donovan, and The Beatles. “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” was filled with good humor and impressive vocal work, and was rewarded with a #7 in the Top 10. The 1967 album it came from was Album 1700, which referred to the Warner Brother’s catalog number for the disc.
Peter Paul and Mary’s biggest hit was also their last. The song came from the same album, and was written by a friend and unknown songwriter, John Denver. His first popular song was “Leaving On A Jet Plane” performed by Peter Paul and Mary. It hit #1 in 1969. Although there were solo albums and many “reunion” performances over the following decades, that was the last real chart success for the group.
Fast forward to March 20th, 2019.
Noel Paul Stookey came to Corvallis, Oregon for an interview (by Bob Santelli) and a performance at The Majestic Theater. It was part of Oregon State’s cool American Strings series.
Paul Stookey told us he started as an “M.C.”, as well as a singer, at folk performances in Greenwich Village. Then he took us all the way through his career, including the protests in the ’60’s, and his solo work that followed. In 1971, he wrote and performed “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)”. It was written for Peter Yarrow’s wedding, and has been performed at thousands of weddings since. We bought his solo album, Paul and, in 1971 and have songs from it on our Peter Paul and Mary playlist.
Mary Travers passed away in 2009 while being treated for leukemia. Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey still perform together at times, and Stookey’s baritone voice remains strong, despite his age of 81. His humor is also intact, and he had us all laughing.
Noel Paul Stookey still writes songs…he played some new ones…and he also had the sold-out audience of about 300 singing along emotionally with “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind”.
Besides the importance that folk music has played in America’s history, maybe the most interesting comment was one about how Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers and he sang. Stookey asked us to think about listening to vocal groups today and how the singers often seem to be competing with each other by using “an edge” to their voices. He said Peter Paul and Mary always “pulled back” their voices a little…so they would “blend together”.
We could use more blending together these days.