In 1961 fate brought a folk singer, a comedian, and a Broadway actress (for one week) together to crate contemporary folk music for the masses.
New York-born Peter Yarrow (23), with his guitar and a psychology degree from Cornell, met Baltimore, Maryland, standup comic Noel Paul Stookey (24) in New York City’s creative melting pot of Greenwich Village. Peter was the veteran, having already played the Newport Fold Festival in 1960. Noel introduced Peter to actress/singer Mary Travers (24), who lived in New York (her parents were both Greenwich Village writers) though she was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Mary had just ended a staring one-week run in the Broadway revue The Next President. She had been singing with a Village group called the Song Swappers that had recorded four LPs with folk legend Pete Seeger when she was only 14.
The spent the next seven months rehearsing 18 songs, usually in Mary’s three-flight walkup. They drew the attention of Milt Okun and folk impresario Albert Grossman (who became their manager), and soon they were debuting their three-part harmony brand of social-protest folk music at the bitter End café.
They agreed to become Peter, Paul and Mary since it sounded catchier than Peter, Noel and Mary (and already had a familiar ring from a folk song lyric that went, “I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses”). The group’s name and music came to the attention of Warner Bros. Records and in early 1962 they recorded the single “Lemon Tree.” The simplicity of their sound caught on and “Lemon Tree” charted on My 5, 1962, reaching number 35.
With the release of “If I Had a Hammer” in August 1962, Peter, Paul and Mary found themselves in the forefront of a protest movement that, for them, would address everything from world hunger and homelessness to civil rights, apartheid, and war.
By October 13, 1962, “If I Had a Hammer” had reached number 10 in the nation and was spreading to the shores of Australia (#10) and beyond.
Their first LP proved they could bring folk music and a substantive message to a large audience. It made the top 10, staying there for an incredible 10 months. It took over three years for it to finally fall out of the Top 100. “If I Had a Hammer” became an anthem for the civil rights movement and the threesome became its musical ambassadors.
A song that evolved from a poem Lenny Lipton left in Yarrow’s typewriter at Cornell in 1959 became one of the group’s biggest hits. “Puff the Magic Dragon” reached number two nationally on May 11, 1963. It also made number 11 in Australia and surprisingly reached number 10 on the U.S. R&B charts while becoming the national camp song anthem.
Their next single was the powerful “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s ironic that the ultimate song of right and wrong should be clouded in its own controversy.
To this day there is still speculation about whether Bob Dylan wrote the song or whether it was penned by a Milburn, New Jersey, high school student named Lorre Wyatt, who reportedly sold the song to Dylan for a thousand dollars under the condition that Wyatt deny and involvement in the composition. Regardless of its authorship, its message was clear and universally accepted in the context of Peter, Paul and Mary’s harmony version. “Blowin’” was another number two hit Stateside, and became their first hit in England (#13).
In 1963, n keeping with the viewpoints expressed in their songs, the trip marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and Washington, D.C., for civil rights.
Their music continued to reach a growing number of fans, keeping Peter, Paul and Mary messages a part of America’s daily life. They issued such recordings as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (#9, 1963), “Tell It on the Mountain” (#13 U.S. and U.K., #2 Australia), “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (#44 U.K., 1964), “For Lovin’ Me” (#30 U.S., 1965, #18 Australia), and “The Cruel War” (#52, 1966).
Their influence was not only felt in the realm of social causes. Songwriters’ careers (including those of Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver) were often launched by having their compositions recorded by the new fold hitmakers.
In 1969 the group charted with the beautiful “Day Is Done” and had their last Top 100 hit with their only number one song, John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (#2 U.K.). That year Yarrow co-organized a peace march on Washington where the trio sang before over half a million people.
By 1970 the group, in need of outlets for their individual expression and a break from the more than 200 performances they were doing a year, disbanded.
Mary recorded five solo LPs; produced, wrote, and starred in a BBC-TV series; and did concerts and lectures across the nation. Paul (who preferred to be known as Noel Stookey when not associated with Peter, Paul and Mary) formed a Christian music group called the Body Works Band. Peter remained the most visible, staying politically active while co-writing and producing Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” (#1, 1977).
He also earned an Emmy for his three animated TV specials based on “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
In 1978, Peter asked Paul and Mary to join him at an anti-nuclear concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Though they hadn’t sung together in over six years they “got back on the horse” as if they’d never been off and renewed their performance schedule as a trio with a modified (for them) average of 60 shows a year. In 1985, they did a single, Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” in support of Soviet Jews trying to emigrate from the U.S.S.R.
In 1986 they returned to the LP side with a collection called No Easy Walk to Freedom, for Gold Castle Records, focusing attention on the anti-apartheid cause. That same yar they appeared on PBS-TV in a special concert to mark their 25th anniversary.
In 1990, they recorded the Flowers and Stones LP, including songs by Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger.
Though the trio garnered eight gold and five platinum LPs, along with 19 chart hits (all 10 of the group’s LPs were artfully remixed for CD by Peter and remained brisk sellers), numbers fail to tell the whole story of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Though they attained legendary status as performers and recording artists, their motives reached beyond the desire for wealth, as indicated by the time and energy they devoted to nonprofit activities and benefits. They were more than just entertainers. With two guitars, three voices, and a lot of integrity, they became one of the most respected groups in the history of pop vocal music.
– Jay Warner