“Peter, Paul and Mary are folk singers.” So stated the liner notes to the group’s self-titled 1962 debut album. Today, this declaration seems redundant, because the term “folk music” has come to be virtually interchangeable with the group name, but when the words were written, they were meant less as a stylistic distinction than as a mission statement.
By the time Peter, Paul and Mary arrived on the scene, for the majority of America, folk was viewed merely as a side-bar to pop music which employed acoustic instruments. At this critical historic juncture, with the nation still recovering from the McCarthy era, the Civil Rights Movement taking shape, the Cold War heating up and a nascent spirit of activism in the air, Peter Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey and Mary Travers came together to juxtapose these cross currents and thus to reclaim folk’s potency as a social, cultural and political force. But few at the time could have realized how fervently and pervasively the group’s message of humanity, hope and activism would be embraced.
Having their music associated with causes and solutions is as natural as breathing for Peter, Paul and Mary. The music they purvey and the action it generates are equally important to them and lie at the heart of their story. Most recently, their individual and collective efforts have focused on such crucial issues as gun violence against children, the rights and organizing efforts of strawberry pickers in California, homelessness and world hunger. “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 to breathe air that’s clean,” Travers points out.
No American folk group has lasted longer or amassed a more loyal following than Peter, Paul and Mary; indeed, few groups of any genre have logged more years (45) or miles (countless) in direct, yearly touring; spreading the message and engaging the next (now four) generations. During its now legendary career, the trio won five Grammy’s, produced 1; Top 40 hits, of which 6 ascended into the Top 10 - as well as eight gold and five platinum albums. That PP&M achieved such a rarefied level of commercial success without compromise, and while continuing a centuries-old tradition of people raising their voices in song for the sake of freedom, is simply further evidence of their extraordinarily successful career-as much a mission accomplished as a musical career.
“The songs we sing invite the participation of the listener, who is central to finding a way of creating the life of the song at that listening,” Yarrow explains. “It’s the difference between poetry and didactic writing. One tells you, ‘This is it,’ and the other says, ‘Let’s find this together.’” Adds Stookey, “Whether it’s your own material or somebody else’s material, it’s essential that you identify with it thoroughly. It’s like you want to archive it; you want to freeze it in time in terms of your perspective on it, then move on, because folk music is that volatile and comments not only on overall human concerns but also on the specifics.”
Yarrow, Stookey and Travers have spent their years together communicating personal, political and social imperatives by way of their impeccably chosen songs, personally crafted harmonies and unmitigated passion. Remarkably, more than four and a half decades after their formation, they’re still singer/advocates. Their spirits and sense of purpose are undiminished and their message, if anything, is more relevant than ever before, particularly as America and the world approach what Travers characterizes as “a critical turning point in time.”
Through the years, that message has been expressed through traditional ballads like “The Three Ravens” and “Take Off Your Old Coat,” the work of such latter-day poets as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and John Denver, and in songs penned by the group itself. It’s a canon of classics-indelible, important songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Cruel War,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “500 Miles,” “Lemon Tree,” “In the Early Morning Rain,” “All My Trials,” and “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” among others.
Released in March, 2004, Rhino’s Carry It On boxed set features four CDs filled with such memorable musical moments from 1960 to 2003, including previously unreleased solo recordings by each member made prior to the group’s formation. The package also contains a bonus DVD with performance footage of some of the trio’s most iconic songs, including a live version of “If I Had a Hammer” from the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Among the many luminaries offering testimonials in the Carry It On liner notes is the late Coretta Scott King, who proclaimed, “Peter, Paul and Mary are not only three of the greatest folk artists ever, but also three of the performing arts’ most outstanding champions of social justice and peace. They have lent their time and talents to the Civil Rights Movement, labor struggles, and countless campaigns for human rights for decades, and their compassion and commitment remain as strong as their extraordinary artistry.”
Carry It On was released simultaneously with In These Times, the group’s first all-new studio recording in more than a decade. The LP features no solo turns, only group vocals-an approach PP&M haven’t employed since their first four albums; their singular harmonies displaying unity in the face of a particularly fractious, and in their opinion, dangerous, era. “With In These Times, we wanted to make a contemporary statement,” says Stookey. “Folk music has the capacity to not only be aware of the continuum, but also to offer thoughts that are perspectives on the immediacy of human concern.”