One who has never yet heard of Peter, Paul and Mary is sure to be missing out on some of the world’s greatest music particularly American folk music. Peter Paul and Mary is an American folk singing trio composed of Mary Travers (November 9, 1936, Louisville, KY), Peter Yarrow (May 31, 1938, New York, NY), and Paul Stookey (December 30, 1937, Baltimore, MD).The group left an important legacy in the history of American music.
How They Began
The group was formed at the start of the presidency of John F. Kennedy when America as a nation was at the height of significant social and political issues like racial equality and political injustice. The trio then emerged just as their nation was struggling against the odds. They sang and held various concert performances particularly in college campuses. Through their songs, they gave the country courage and inspiration to finally stand up for its pledge to be one nation of liberty and justice. Their songs touched the hearts of millions of Americans as the meanings of the songs are truly profound and moving.
Mary was raised in Greenwich Village and was both politically and musically involved. She’d made her first recordings while still in high school (1954) in a chorus backing Pete Seeger for Folkways Records. She became a member of the Song Swappers a group doing albums of international folk songs and camp songs. As a singer, she was heavily influenced by Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers and also by Jo Mapes, a bluesy white folksinger from Los Angeles.
Paul Stookey or Noel Paul Stookey, was a huge fan of jazz and what was later called R&B in the mid- to late ’40s. He took up his guitar and had formed his first band, the Birds of Paradise, in high school during the early ’50s.In college, he continued singing and also discovered two additional talents, as a raconteur and as a standup comic, with a special knack for improvising sound effects. It was in Greenwich Village, where he began to learn about folk music. He and Mary became friends and would sometimes sing and composed music together.
Peter Yarrow on the other hand, was a graduate of Cornell University who fell into music while serving as a teaching assistant. Towards the end of 1959, he was playing in Greenwich Village and, the following year, he was booked on a CBS network television show about folk music, where he met Albert Grossman.
Paul Stookey also started in The Village as a fledgling stand-up comic from Maryland. He was then a fresh graduate from Michigan State. Paul then met Peter Yarrow, who was playing Village coffeehouses as a solo act, and then with Mary Travers, who was already known for her work in the Song Swappers. The three were encouraged by folk impresario Albert Grossman (who became their manager) to sing and rehearse together until they finally did in Stookey’s Lower East Side apartment. After auditioning several folk singers in New York, the group’s manager Albert Grossman created Peter, Paul and Mary in 1961. They have rehearsed out of town in Boston and Miami until Grossman booked them into The Bitter End, a coffee house and popular folk music venue in Greenwich Village, New York City.
In an interview with Peter Yarrow, who had come to Greenwich Village with a psychology degree from Cornell, he said 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.”
The Journey to Success
In 1962, the year after the group had been formed, they were signed to Warner Bros. and they recorded their first album, Peter, Paul and Mary Some of the hits included in the album were “Lemon Tree”, “500 Miles”, and the Pete Seeger hit tunes “If I Had a Hammer” (subtitled “(The Hammer Song)”) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”. “Lemon Tree” rose to number 35 on the charts late that spring but it was “If I Had a Hammer,” that marked their breakthrough. The song, written by Seeger and Hays in the days of the Weavers was a definite philosophical and political edge. Its timing was perfect in late 1962 where the civil rights movement was becoming a concern to a growing number of middle-class onlookers. The song “embodied this zeitgeist in its most idealistic form. Coupled with its upbeat and soulful performance (which made it even more seductive and appealing to the listeners), the single hit number ten on the charts. It also made the tri won their first two Grammy Awards, for Best Performance by a Vocal Group and Best Folk Recording.
The album “Peter, Paul and Mary” was listed in the Billboard Magazine Top Ten for 10 months, including seven weeks in the #1 position. It remained a main catalog-seller for decades and eventually sold over two million copies earning Double Platinum certification in the United States alone.
In 1963, “Puff the Magic Dragon” was released with music by Yarrow and words based on a poem that had been written by a fellow student at Cornell, Leonard Lipton. There were a lot of criticisms that the song has a lot of references to drugs, but in reality, it is about the lost innocence of childhood. That same year, they also performed “If I Had a Hammer” at the 1963 March on Washington which was best remembered for Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
One of their biggest hit singles was the song “Blowin’ in the Wind?” which is originally a Bob Dylan song. They also sang other songs of Bob Dylan such as, “The Times They Are a-Changin”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and “When the Ship Comes In”.
In December 1969, their song “Leaving On A Jet Plane” written by their friend John Denver became their only #1 hit (as well as their final Top 40 Pop hit). It was the group’s only million-selling Gold single which first appeared on their million-selling Platinum certified Album 1700 in 1967 (which also contained their #9 hit “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”). “Day Is Done”, a #21 hit in June 1969, was the last Hot 100 hit that the trio recorded. By 1970, Peter, Paul & Mary already had earned eight gold and five platinum albums.
In 1970 the group decided to split up and pursue individual plans and goals. They thought they needed some time for personal growth. The group then disbanded and each member began pursuing solo careers. Paul’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 catered to children through a variety of children’s computer, television and music projects. Mary on the other hand, recorded five albums and produced, wrote and starred in a BBC television series. She also lectured and had concerts across the country while Peter concentrated on political activism and solo music projects. Peter 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)” also earned Yarrow an Emmy nomination.
Coming Back Together
The reunion of the trio in 1978 was of an important cause. Peter was helping in organizing Survival Sunday, an anti-nuclear benefit at the Hollywood Bowl, and he asked Paul and Mary to join him on stage. According to Mary, they realized that they had missed each other personally and musically, so they decided to try a limited reunion tour.
Moreover, they realized that each of them has a potential necessary for a good balance. Mary observed that each of them has a talent that’s pivotal for the group. Mary states, “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 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 1972, Peter Paul and Mary were again seen performing for a concert at Madison Square Garden to support George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Following that in the same year, they also sang for a concert to protest against nuclear energy which was concert was followed by a summer reunion tour, which proved to be so popular that the group decided to reunite more or less permanently in 1981.
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How It Came to an End
After they had been reunited, they had continued to record albums together and made tours, playing around 45 shows a year.
In 2004 however, Mary Travers was diagnosed with leukemia which lead to the cancellation of the remaining tour dates for that year. She and the rest of the trio resumed their concert tour on December 2005 with a holiday performance at Carnegie Hall and in 2006, Peter, Paul and Mary received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, Mary’s recovery from back surgery took longer than expected and s later she had to undergo a second surgery that’s why other tours were compromised.
Mary was unable to perform on the trio’s tour in mid-2009 because of her medical condition, but Peter and Paul performed on the scheduled dates as a duo, calling the show “Peter & Paul Celebrate Mary and 5 Decades of Friendship.”
It was September 16, 2009 when Mary Travers died at age 72 of complications from chemotherapy, and so the trio came to an end. It was the same year though (2009) that they were inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.