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Addresses: Record company --Gold Castle Records, 3575 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Suite 470, Los Angeles, CA 90068.
One of the few folk groups to survive the shift in the music industry from folk to rock in the late 1960s, Peter, Paul & Mary are considered by many to be the quintessential folk act. They came together in Greenwich Village early in the 1960s, clearly a product of the day. The music they delivered was deeply rooted in folk tradition, incorporating the sound of another age with the moral and political issues of a turbulent decade.
Born November 30, 1937, in Baltimore, Maryland (Birmingham, Mich., according to one source), Noel Paul Stookey's early musical interests were rooted not in folk music but in 1950s rock and roll. He learned to play electric guitar while in high school, a handy skill which helped him work his way through college at Michigan State University. After graduation, he moved to Pennsylvania with his family, working odd jobs until the lure of music became too strong. In New York he sought work as a musician, battling starvation until finally accepting a job in a chemical company. While still hoping to be involved with the music scene, by the end of 1960 Stookey was better known as a stand-up comic in Greenwich Village clubs. It was there he would meet Mary Travers and folksinger Milt Okun.
Mary Ellin Travers was born November 7, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. Her family moved to New York when she was still very young and she took an early interest in folk music, later singing in teenage folk groups. With a group called the Songswappers she actually made two appearances at Carnegie Hall. Following school Travers landed a chorus part in "The Next President." When the show flopped, she turned her attention to various advertising day jobs, leaving her weekends and evenings free to explore the local music scene. It was there she met Stookey and folksinger Milt Okun. As Okun was currently focusing on managing young talent, he took an interest in promoting Stookey and Travers. It was he who felt the duo would do better as a trio.
Peter Yarrow proved an able musician from a young age. Born May 31, 1938, in New York City, Yarrow was adept at both guitar and violin by the time he enrolled at Cornell University to major in psychology. Though he played in school functions and at local clubs, his intention upon graduation was to work in the field of psychology. Like Stookey, though, he found the lure of music strong and soon he was working with various folk groups. Yarrow gained exposure through a CBS television special "Folk Sound, U.S.A." and went on to play in the 1960 Newport Folk Festival. His decision to remain in music could only have been strengthened by Milt Okun's proposal that he become the third party in a promising new trio: Peter, Paul & Mary.
After seven months of intensive rehearsing and making their debut in New York in 1962, the group signed with Warner Bros. Records. Already they were considered one of the major up-and-coming new acts on the Manhattan folk scene. Their 1962 self-titled debut album of standard and original folk-style material won them great recognition and two hit singles, "Lemon Tree" and "If I Had a Hammer." The latter provided the group with their first Grammys for best performance by a vocal group and best folk recording. For three years Peter, Paul & Mary remained on the charts, its namesakes becoming one of the most popular bands on the college circuit, not to mention their involvement in protest marches and various political rallies. Two albums followed in 1963, each doing better than the last. Peter, Paul & Mary--Moving included the smash hit "Puff (the Magic Dragon)," "Stew Ball," and Woody Guthrie's folk-anthem "This Land Is Your Land." With Peter, Paul & Mary--In the Wind, the group featured music of the then-unknown Bob Dylan ("Blowin' in The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice It's All Right"), giving a great boost to the growing "folk-protest" movement. Their rendition of "Blowin' in The Wind" earned them two more Grammys--again for best performance by a vocal group and for best folk recording. Throughout the 1960s the group was greatly in demand for TV and live performances, appearing at a number of folk and rock music festivals.
In 1965 the group brought Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, whose "Early Morning Rain" they recorded on the album See What Tomorrow Brings to the attention of the United States. In the latter part of the decade they introduced the music world to yet another talented unknown--John Denver--when they recorded his touching "Leavin' On a Jet Plane" in 1967. A succession of hit singles and best-selling albums continued until 1970 when the group disbanded to follow individual pursuits. Their final album of the decade, Peter Paul & Mommy was a delightful collection of children's music including traditional and original works as well as songs by Tom Paxton ("The Marvelous Toy," "Going to the Zoo"), Shel Silverstein ("Boa Constrictor"), and others. A Grammy winner for best recording for children, the album was largely recorded live, featuring the singing and spontaneous reactions of the children involved.
For Stookey, the group's disbanding meant spending more time with his wife and daughters and seriously pursuing a commitment to the Christian faith. "After the discovery that I needed God in my life, it became obvious that I had allowed a great distance to develop between me and my family," he said. "But since my body moves about two years after my mind, it wasn't until 1970 that I spoke about retiring." Among his projects were three albums on biblical parables and the solo album Paul And, which contained a major hit with the classic-sounding ballad "Wedding Song (There Is Love)" written in celebration of Peter Yarrow's marriage.
Other solo albums, by all three members, were to fare poorly. Though Yarrow continued in folk music, taking part in concerts, festivals, and appearing on folk radio shows early on, he later became involved in political activism as well as record and television production. His co-produced animated special "Puff, the Magic Dragon" aired on CBS in 1978 and was an Emmy nominee. Mary Travers remained the most consistent performer after the trio's breakup, appearing at nightclubs and on college campuses. She even lectured on "Society and Its Effect on Music," something the group she had been a part of knew and demonstrated well.
Peter, Paul & Mary joined together again in 1978, and the resulting album, Reunion, included such classics as Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," Shel Silverstein's "Unicorn Song" (made popular by the Irish Rovers), and new material co-authored by Yarrow with Barry Mann. They toured early in 1980, then again for their 25th anniversary concert. Said one reviewer, "Their jokes and sweet-'60's observations of life may date Peter, Paul & Mary now. But their songs don't get old."
From other directions, however, the trio was met with sizzling contempt for their supposedly misinformed political involvement with everyone from the Democratic party to dissidents on several continents. Said one especially irate critic in New Republic, "They have for months been humming and strumming a remarkably cacophonous hymn, lazily called 'Nicaragua.' Its aggressively credulous message about the revolution probably would not have passed the lips of even so genial a comrade as Pete Seeger, banjo Bolshevik extraordinaire.... The freedom cause in South Africa deserves more discerning friends than those dewy-eyed apologists for dictatorship."
Their 1987 album, No Easy Walk to Freedom, their first in six years, met with similar mixed reviews. While they earned compliments for the harmonies they are so well known for, "it's a little puzzling," said one critic, "why so many of the tracks are done as solos ... and there is so little of the harmonizing that was always one of PPM's most charming qualities." The album's content was heavily influenced by the call for a 1980s brand of social justice. The trio are featured on the album cover being arrested for protesting apartheid. The songs run the gamut from U.S. military intervention in El Salvador to saving whales to racism in South Africa. According to one critic, all of these are worthy subjects, but "to cram them all into one album is reminiscent of bad political speech making, in which issues are tossed out wholesale in the hope that there's something there for everybody." He favored the "less pretentious" love songs. The title track, an anti-apartheid tune, and "Light One Candle," a song for Jewish dissidents in Russia, were nevertheless singled out by another critic who maintained that they "rank with their best protest material."
Throughout a turbulent decade Peter, Paul and Mary sang protest songs, calling for social justice. They sang timeless love songs, children's songs, and classic folk-tunes, blending their voices in unsurpassed harmony. Their impact on culture and on the developing concept of the sixties generation was far-reaching. To ask "where have all the flowers gone" is to return to a decade of fading innocence, and Vietnam, and a thousand questions whose answers never seemed sufficient. Of their development, Travers commented that "we came from the folk tradition in a contemporary form where there was a concern that idealism be a part of your music and the music a part of your life ... the music becomes an extension of your caring and your soul--there's no schism between what you can do on stage and who you are. What we're trying for is a kind of health--and that's what we were always trying for."
by Meg Mac Donald
Mary Ellin Travers's Career
- Selective Works
- Peter, Paul & Mary Warner Bros., 1962.
- Peter, Paul & Mary--Moving Warner Bros., 1963.
- Peter, Paul & Mary--In the Wind Warner Bros., 1963.
- Peter, Paul & Mary in Concert Warner Bros., 1965.
- A Song Will Rise Warner Bros., 1965.
- See What Tomorrow Brings Warner Bros., 1965.
- Peter, Paul & Mary Album Warner Bros., 1966.
- Album 1700 Warner Bros., 1967.
- Late Again Warner Bros., 1968.
- Peter, Paul & Mommy Warner Bros., 1969.
- The Best of Peter, Paul & Mary: Ten Years Together Warner Bros., 1970.
- Reunion Warner Bros., 1978.
- No Easy Walk to Freedom Gold Castle, 1987.
- Solo LPs; Paul Stookey
- Paul And Warner Bros., 1971.
- Noel--One Night Stand Warner Bros., 1973.
- Solo LPs; Mary Travers
- Mary Warner Bros., 1971.
- Morning Glory Warner Bros., 1972.
- All My Choices Warner Bros., 1973.
- Circles Warner Bros., 1974.
- It's in Every One of Us Chrysalis, 1978.
- Solo LPs; Peter Yarrow
- Peter Warner Bros., 1972.
- That's Enough for Me Warner Bros., 1973.
- Hard Times Warner Bros., 1975.
- Love Songs Warner Bros., 1975.
- Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St.
- Martin's, 1983.
- High Fidelity, May 1987.
- New Republic, August 25, 1986. People, February 23, 1987.
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