Peter Paul & Mary, the sweetest voices of the 1960s folk era

Although I covered pop music at a time when punk, hardcore, “alternative” rock, rap and hip hop were the coolest sounds, I always had a soft spot for the sweet sugar of pure pop. I once wrote an essay comparing Michael Jackson to Prince, as if Jackson were the Beatles and Prince were the Rolling Stones. In my essay, MJ won out (but this was before MJ got weird).

I was, it’s true, a Beatles fan over the Stones. And a lot of the reason was the vocals, not just the pop brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney and Harrison songs. I loved the Beatles’ harmony. When I listen to Beatles songs, I can hear their voices dancing and meshing with each other; sometimes trading melody for harmony, sometimes taking an aural upfront position, sometimes laying back.

That’s the same quality that turned me on to artists such as Simon & Garfunkel in spite of Paul Simon’s brainy-nerdy lyrics (I was a brainy nerdy kid, after all, so I identified with him). Simon and Art Garfunkel’s voices were a natural fit, and I still love to hear their duet vocals, especially on their earlier, unadorned music. Their solo recordings, even when they’re great records, don’t thrill me as much as the ones they made together.

Peter, Paul and Mary were for me, the pinnacle of the melody/harmony interplay. Like the Beatles, they could sing high or low parts, and the sound was fuller than a duet to have all three filling in gaps. Yes, PP&M were an “artificial” group, the folk version of the Monkees, who were assembled as a hit-making enterprise by their manager to cash in on the urban folk boom of the times. Following the success of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and others, Albert Grossman’s formula for pop success was to bring together “a tall blonde, a funny guy, and a good looking guy” and watch the cash flow in. That it did.

But they also rose above their commercial crassness and made some fine music for the ages. The trio, Noel Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were earnest lefty-touchy-feely folksingers, a natural progression from the Woody Guthrie balladeer of the Depression era forged with the commercially viable groupthink of the ’50s Weavers (where Pete Seeger made his original mark).

They had a string of hits, including folk songs like “500 Miles,” pop ballads like “Lemon Tree” and protest songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” They popularized the emerging voices of the new generation’s “protest singers” like Bob Dylan (the trio’s take of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is still my favroite of many cover versions and the original). They also sparked the public’s imagination with the silly controversy over “Puff the Magic Dragon” (was it or was it not about smoking pot?), and closed out their hitmaking career with a pair of terrific sunset singles, John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and ” the gospel-infused “Day Is Done.”

They caught the zeitgeist of their times — a spirit of searching and questioning of values, the possibilities of youthful exhuberance, and a lust for life. They still perform to nostalgic crowds, but their golden era was inexorably and permanently affixed to the folk era’s comet.

I’m still entranced by watching the lusty-voiced Mary Traverse; she was my ideal of an Earth Mother, pre-hippie but post-beatnik musical goddess, and when she shakes her hair on the version of “If I Had a Hammer” on the documentary “Festival,” I still get goosebumps as if I were a teenager and falling in love with folk music all over again.

For some music fans, PP&M and others commercialized “real” folk music or gave a phony veneer to the work of songwriters like Bob Dylan, but to this day, I think PP&M’s versions of others’ songs more compelling … and more beautiful.

I came to this stuff relatively late — I was born in 1957 so I didn’t experience the “urban folk scare,” as John Stewart, once of the Kingston Trio called it. I was a product of the bubblegum era, the Monkees and classic Top 40. But I liked the PP&M hits I knew — and the ones I was taught in grade school, like ‘Lemon Tree” and “Hammer.”

Somehow, their harmonies really turned me on, and I had the ability to discern the separate parts. In high school I used to sing along and people used to tell me I was singing off, but it’s because I was singing one of the harmony parts.

Their legacy isn’t just for shower performances, though. There’s lots of vinyl to explore their history.

And, luckily for fans and the curious, there’s a trove of PP&M videos on YouTube:

“Early Morning Ran”
This one gives me chills, I love the song and vocal arrangements so (the album version has a cool lead guitar riff that’s not done live). I like Gordon Lightfoot’s original version too, but when all three kick in on the title line, or on the first few words of the verse that starts “Out on runway number nine” … wow:

“If I Had a Hammer”
This is the great performance from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival that’s captured in it entirety (without the Pete Seeger overdub) on the movie “Festival.” I fall in love with Mary Traverse all over again every time I see her shake her hair. I swear that’s real passion, not acting:

“If I Had a Hammer”
Here’s a cleaner version from a TV show:

“The Times They Are Changing'”
From the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, another track from the film “festival.” Traverse’s clenched fist is a classic show of emotion, and then she slips into a heart-wrenching croon of a voice when she sings Dylan’s verse that rips into the generation gap. The blowing wind is a nice effect (I assume it was really windy on the stage, not just a special effect):

“For Loving Me”:
This is another Gordon Lightfoot song, from 1965:

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”
Late version of shown on a 1982 Japanese TV special. Harmonies still intact:

“Go Tell It on the Mountain”
They look so young and innocent. This one’s a bit breezy for me, but still great harmonies. I like Simon and Garfunkel’s version from their first album better, though:

“500 Miles”
Slow song, but another one I learned in grade school music class:

“Leaving on a Jet Plane”
Nice 1969 recording of one of their last major hits, with songwriter John Deutschendorf (Denver) sitting in):

“Blowing in the Wind/Give Peace a Chance”
Cheesy, but sincere, appearance at the 1971 Peace March on Washington (I remember seeing this in the local news coverage that night):

“Blowing in the Wind”
Geeez, Jack Benny introducing PP&M doing “Blowing in the Wind.” Talk about a generation gap. How weird was that?

“If I Had My Way”
PPM get down and funky (sort of) with hippie chic on this bluesy traditional gospel song (Odetta has the REAL down and dirty version):

“Too Much of Nothin'”
PP&M get hippie-fied on Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing.”

“Day Is Done”
Their swan song:

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