The defining act of the 1960s folk boom, and one of the most important musical acts of the decade in general, Peter, Paul and Mary were an act who not only popularized many of the greatest folk standards of the 20th century but whose music was a key element of the decade’s civil rights movement and continues to enjoy success and relevance to this day.
Singer/comedian Noel Stookey (born December 30, 1937) and vocalist Mary Travers (November 9, 1936 – September 16, 2009) met while on the nightclub circuit in SoHo in the early 1960s and began writing and performing songs together. They were later introduced to singer/songwriter Peter Yarrow (born May 31, 1938), at the time a teaching assistant and occasional folk singer, by Bob Dylan's future manager Albert Grossman after Yarrow appeared on a CBS television special about folk music. Grossman suggested they form a “folk supergroup” as a Spiritual Successor to the late-1940s folk boom started by the likes of The Weavers and Pete Seeger, which had given way to a wave of “pop folk” in the late '50s and early '60s. Yarrow agreed and, after Stookey decided to go by his middle name of Paul, Peter, Paul and Mary was born.
Following hugely successful appearances in Greenwich Village, the trio's debut Self-Titled Album appeared in 1962, featuring their Breakthrough Hit, a cover of the Pete Seeger-penned “If I Had a Hammer.” Both established PP&M’s trademark style of staunchly left-wing (albeit non-threatening) sociopolitical lyrics wrapped in catchy melodies and gorgeous three-part harmonies, which gave them mainstream appeal without needing to sacrifice their messages. And it helped that the era's changing political tides had brought a more liberal American public, who would more readily accept the group’s songs than the conservatives who'd dismissed their predecessors. (Being signed to Warner (Bros.) Records didn’t hurt, either.)
PP&M’s next album, Moving, featured undoubtedly the group’s most beloved song, the children’s classic “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It also established another of the group’s trademarks: covering lots and lots of Bob Dylan songs, arguably beginning the trend of Dylan’s biting social commentary finding greater success in more capable performers (read: people who’s voices didn’t sound like sandpaper on one’s ear). Their cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was not only a massive hit, reaching #2 on the charts, which brought Dylan into the mainstream, but embodied the zeitgeist of political activism in 1960s America to a T as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The group would give a career-defining performance of the song at the March on Washington, immediately following Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
In addition to PP&M’s socially conscious lyrics, the trio were also well known for being quite the humorists, frequently poking fun at themselves and letting Stookey perform standup during concerts. When rock n’ roll began eclipsing folk in the later part of the decade, they bit back with the deeply satirical Stealth Insult track “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” (the song famously included a dig at The Mamas & the Papas, who, at the time, were accused of being a ripoff of PP&M).
The group became more directly politically active in the later part of the '60s, appearing at the White House on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign (Yarrow would end up marrying McCarthy’s daughter shortly thereafter). McCarthy’s failure, which tragically (and eerily) coincided with the murders of both MLK and Robert F. Kennedy, signaled the End of an Era and the group took a hiatus in 1970 after celebrating their ten-year anniversary with a Greatest Hits Album. All three would have modest solo careers, with Stookey's "Wedding Song (And There Is Love)" becoming a minor hit.
After a couple of failed reunions, the group reformed proper in the '80s, and at the best possible time: the new political climate proposed by the Ronald Reagan administration threatened to do away with the very human rights they had fought to protect for twenty years prior, and their songs were needed more than ever. The next fifteen years saw a handful of new albums, along with various all-star folk concerts, albums, and television specials, with the trio’s songs just as socially aware as ever. The act’s final studio album, In These Times, appeared in 2006 and featured a cover of Mark Wills’ country hit “Don’t Laugh at Me,” which Yarrow would later use as the basis for a successful anti-bullying campaign.
By this point, Mary Travers had been living with leukemia for two years and was performing concerts with an oxygen mask kept on standby. She died of complications from the illness three years later, effectively ending the group permanently after a prolific 50-year career.
"If I had a trope list/I'd edit in the morning/I'd edit in the evening/All over this la-and!"
- Biblical Motifs: It did not escape notice that Peter, Paul, and Mary are all prominent characters from the Bible.
- The Cast Show Off: In Concert allows Paul Stookey a chance to perform some of his stand-up routine and show off his uncanny ability for automobile sound effects on their cover of Woody Guthrie's "Car-Car."
- Christmas Songs:
- "Christmas Dinner", a Paul Stookey composition released as a holiday single and subsequently included on Peter, Paul and Mommy.
- In 1988 they performed a concert of Christmas and Hanukkah songs with the New York Choral Society, which was subsequently released as both an album (A Holiday Celebration) and video (The Holiday Concert).
- Cover Version: About half of their catalogue, mostly Bob Dylan songs (they shared a manager with him).
- Cow Tools: "The Marvellous Toy" (written by Tom Paxton) is about a Cow Tool toy:It went "Zip!" when it moved
And "Pop!" when it stopped
And "Whirr!" when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was
And I guess I never will.
- Downer Ending: "Puff the Magic Dragon" is one of the most famous (and notorious) examples in all of 20th century music.
- Folk Music: One of the greatest and most important acts of the genre.
- Homesickness Hymn: One of the group's more famous songs, "Leaving on a Jet Plane" is about a man saying goodbye to his lover, promising that he'll return with her wedding ring.
- Live Album: They had a number of them, beginning with 1964's bestselling In Concert.
- Long Runner Lineup: A variant of Type 1. They originally lasted from 1961–69 (8 years), broke up, reunited in 1978, and remained together until Mary died in 2009 (31 years). They're not a pure Type 1 because they didn't hit the 10-year anniversary before their breakup.
- Male Band, Female Singer: Mary Travers provided only vocals, while Peter and Paul also played guitars.
- Ms. Fanservice: The attractive Mary Travers added this element to what had been a purely male folk combo scene. The group has even been likened to "the Kingston Trio with sex appeal." Of course, she had the pipes to back it up.
- Multi-Character Title: The first names of the trio form the band name.
- Name and Name: And Name.
- Picked Last: "Right Field"We'd pick out the captains and we'd choose up the teams,
It was always a measure of my self-esteem.
Cause the fastest, the strongest played shortstop and first,
The last ones they picked were the worst.
- Protest Song: Their bread-and-butter. Notable examples include "If I Had a Hammer," "Blowin' in the Wind," and "500 Miles."
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: FAR on the idealistic side. Even their most somber songs had undertones of hope that things would get better.
- The Smurfette Principle: One woman, two men.
- Stage Name: "Paul" is actually Noel Stookey's middle name. He started going by Paul both to make the group's name alliterative and as a reference to a lyric in the gospel song "1,000 Years Ago" ("I saw Peter, Paul, and Moses / Playing ring around the roses...").
- Stealth Insult/Stealth Parody: "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" was largely taken at face value by listeners as a celebration of The Mamas & the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles, but it actually takes veiled swipes at all of them, as well as characterizing rock fans as shallow dweebs trying to be hip.I figure it's about the happiest sound goin' down today
The message may not move me
Or mean a great deal to me
But hey, it feels so groovy to say
- Take That!: "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" is, well, a dig at rock music, which Yarrow and Travers dismissed as being style over substance.
- Three Chords and the Truth: That being a defining trait of the Folk Music genre. However, the trio often put more complex harmonies in their arrangements, especially since Stookey had a background in jazz guitar.
- Two Guys and a Girl: Peter, Paul, and Mary respectively.
- Vocal Evolution: Their harmonies gradually evolved from "angelic" to "weather worn" with age.
- Vocal Tag Team: All three members sung their equal share.
- The Voice: Bass player Dick Kniss accompanied the trio for more than 40 years, but good luck finding his picture with them.