Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance at a massive 1971 peace march in Washington was more ragged than their generally smooth concert work, but it still resonated with the emotional power their listeners always expected.
I just re-watched the video of that performance, thanks to the link in R.P. Singletary’s tribute to Mary Travers, who died Sept. 16 at the age of 72. I had traveled to Washington from North Carolina for the ’71 rally and was, no doubt, among the scruffier folks in the throng. It was the second time I had heard PP&M at a political demonstration, the 12th time I had seen them overall.
Their music rang clearly through the sound track of my youth. From the vantage point of four decades and more, the appeal of those performances might seem hard to fathom. But I remember them clearly.
More importantly, I remember their impact on my view of the world.
Especially early on, I suspect one factor that added to the attraction of Peter, Paul and Mary was their sophistication. These were young adults from New York, who hung out in coffee houses in Greenwich Village. They actually knew beatniks! After a concert in my city, the most sophisticated place we could hang out was Shakey’s Pizza. I liked PP&M even more when, one night after a show, they showed up at our Shakey’s, too.
But what I liked best was the way they communicated their sense of values. At my favorite concert in the ’60s, the whole audience sat on the floor and sang along on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “The Times They Are A’Changing .” Were we young and naive? Absolutely. Not your idea of a good time? I can understand. But if music can make you a better person, those concerts somehow did. At least, I think they did in my case. Most of PP&M’s songs were not political. But I never left one of their shows without feeling a surge of idealism. Scoff if you wish, but I still think idealism — especially the idealism of the young — is a very good thing.
I lived in a smallish city in the West the first several times I heard Peter, Paul and Mary, but I had been born in the deep South and was a thoroughgoing son of the region of my birth. While hardly the lone factor, PP&M helped persuade me to become an all-out supporter of the civil rights movement. Today, I thank them for that.
As fashions changed, PP&M and “folk” music gave way to fresher faces on the musical scene. The last couple of times I saw them, they seemed more a nostalgia act than the energetic young people I first recalled.
To their great credit, however, their idealism never waned. Mary Travers’ never did, for sure.
I spoke with Mary, who was herself born in the American South, only once, an interview for a newspaper article. Her conversational style was genuine, friendly and informal. Her answers to questions were unrehearsed. I found her funny. When I mentioned that I subscribed to Sing Out, the folk music magazine, she interrupted me: “You read Sing Out?” she said. “Will you marry me?” I also found her fiery in her political views. Mary Travers, I gathered, did not suffer fools gladly.
When I first heard her sing, civil rights was the dominant social issue in our country. Today, the same could be said of universal health care. Both those issues go to the heart of what we think the United States of America should be all about.
The songs Mary, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey sang to rally my generation to a greater vision of our nation are still relevant today. I just wish Mary could still be here to sing them.
Peter, Paul and Mary Web site: http://www.peterpaulandmary.com/