Three & A Half Decades
of Peter, Paul & Mary
By Tina Alvarez
©1996 Entertainment Magazine (EMOL.org)
Peter, Paul & Mary, having just completed their nation-wide tour in celebration of their 17th album, "PP M &: Lifelines," are observing 35 years of creating popular music together. Mary, who was caught in pouring rain enroute from her Conneticut home to her agent's New York office for the interview, graciously took time to talk about the tour, the album and assorted topics dealing with the group and their music.
"The tour's over until next year," she explained in a pleasantly deep voice. "We have a television show to do in January and that'll be the first meeting we'll have after a well-deserved little vacation."
"PP M&: Lifelines" is an ambitious effort that embraces a stellular cast of friends including Judy Collins, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, John Gorka, Emmylou Harris, Richie Havens, B.B. King, Holly Near, Tom Paxton, John Sebastian, Carly and Lucy Simon, Peter Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert and Dave Van Ronk. In keeping with that luminous line-up, they sought out the skills of longtime friend and producer Phil Ramone.
"There were a lot of intersecting lines on that album, not only going back and doing a tune with Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Freddy Hellerman of the Weavers, but going back to the producer that we had worked with many, many years ago -- Phil Ramone," she illustrated. "In fact, we worked with him when he wasn't a producer, he was an engineer."
Obviously, all the singers and musicians couldn't be in one place at one time, but through the use of modern technology the end result was ultimately achieved.
"You have television cameras, satellite hook-ups, all that stuff," Mary explained. "It's sort-of if each of you were in an isolation booth, but in the same studio. So a lot of intimacy is not lost. A surprising amount of intimacy is maintained. It's quite amazing how effective one can be under those circumstances."
As can be expected, the material of this album covers an enormous fountain of new as well as standard material. The traditional "River of Jordan" is a hefty effort that features many of the aforementioned musicians. Mary said the idea was to have the musical arrangement of the number fit in a philosophic way.
"The words of the song and the development of the tune starts with the people who inspired us and then going on, ever picking up speed and picking up members. That, I think, was the philosophical debt of this whole album," she clarified.
Aware of the valid issues prevalent in their early days, their material is as timely now as it was then, although some of the topics have changed. "Home Is Where the Heart Is," for example, is a tune that deals with same-sex love.
"I think it's an important song. I think it has something important to say and having found the song, it's important for me to sing," Mary acknowledged, laughing. "It's the kind of song that I would sing to my grandchildren. In it's way it's a very simple statement about love. That love is bigger than gender. It has a quality that must be taught. That love is about acceptance, compassion, empathy."
"PP M &: Lifelines" holds dear those giving qualities that they've never lost sight of. Back in the '60s, they featured an unknown songwriter named Bob Dylan who penned "Blowing in the Wind" which became a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary. In turn, it provided Dylan with an introduction to a massive audience so that when he surfaced, people were ready for him. On "Lifelines" they give the same opportunity to Sally Fingerett ("Home Is Where the Heart Is) and Buddy Mondlock ("The Kid").
When I mentioned to Mary that "Blowing in the Wind" was the first anti-war song to hit the pop charts, she was quick to point out that this was not the case.
"Well, I don't think we had the first. I think probably the Kingston Trio did," she corrected. "I think they recorded 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' before we recorded our first album."
The concept of an anti-war song is a "very, very, old concept," she explained, stating that the folk music they perform deals in classical values. And, despite how righteous a population thinks it is in any particular time, and although war may be a necessary action, it is never a good thing.
"Music should not celebrate war," she continued. "War is a human failing. Folk music deals with classical things and those don't change. You know the line in 'Blowing in the Wind' -- 'How many years must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned?' -- Bob Dylan used the world 'cannonball.' He could have used the word 'rocket' or 'atom bomb' or he could have used any number of contemporary war images.
"The reason he said cannonball," Mary explained, "was to give the listener the implication of something that has been going on and on and on. It doesn't matter how fancy the war machinery gets -- 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' or 'Blowing in the Wind' -- those songs are still going to be absolutely right on target."
Never having the opportunity to talk to the folk singers who've influenced Peter, Paul & Mary, I nabbed the chance to ask this wizened songstress how she would explain folk music to those who haven't had the exposure that she's been witness to.
"Folk music, depending on how far back you want to go, is a cultural articulation of a particular period in time. Cultures that were not particularly literate very often have some of the most incredibly strong folk music because that is the cultural articulation. Folk music is really that music which comes from the people, is sustained by the people, as opposed to some art form that is part of a fad. Traditional folk music is music that articulates human concern."
Definitions of folk music are difficult because it varies depending on who is asked. Query a musicologist, she illustrated, and you'll get a very narrow definition based on which folk and what period of time.
"For instance, there is no long a folk music which has not been affected by other cultures, whereas in the 16th or 17th century music could be isolated and therefore have a purity and an articulation of a culture that was not affected by other cultural influences other than its own," she elaborated.<P>
That, she said, would be a musicologist's definition.
"But we don't live in a world anymore in which one can find cultures unaffected by other cultures, so you have to make more contemporary definitions of folk music," she stated. "I think that most folk musicians are still in sense troubadours and they're troubadours of simplicity. The music is direct, usually positive, and when it isn't, it's a sad song. It does not encourage the audience to do something destructive. It has an ethic and a morality."
Like the folk greats before them, Peter, Paul & Mary are striding forward with common messages that have the capability to appeal to everyone. Thirty-five years later and still going strong -- has it always been smooth sailing for this timeless trio?
"Of course not," she answered. "We're like three siblings. We've been known to have some humdinger fights, more I think, in our early years certainly. It takes a long time to make a family. It goes with a lot of ups and downs."
With a collage of memories of their years together, they're eagerly anticipating their future with enthusiasm. The start of the New Year will see the group filming a television special.
"It's going to be along the lines of our new LP in the sense that there will be guest artists, the sense of sharing with our mentors and our contemporaries -- some of them new singers and singer-songwriters. Also in the sense of the continuity of folk music," she described. "You know, it didn't begin with us and it's not going to end with us."
Touring is also on the agenda, with a string of 45 dates set through the spring and summer. In addition, the group will begin compiling new material for an album and plan to put out a new release every two years, as well as "working on things that pop up from time-to-time that are very challenging and exciting that we can't predict."
"I think I never expected to know Peter and Paul for 35 years," she concluding, laughing, "but I'm certainly happy I have!"
02/18/05 Las Vegas, NS
Las Vegas, NS
Las Vegas, NS
San L. Obispo, CA
Performing Arts Center
California Center For The Arts
New Brunswick, NJ
Lowell Memorial Auditorium
Temple Beth El
Click on an album to listen to music samples, browse more selections or make your purcahse through amazon.com:
"In These Times"
Peter, Paul & Mommy
Peter, Paul & Mary Deluxe Book Anthology
Best of Peter, Paul & Mary
"Carry it On"