50 YEARS WITH PETER PAUL AND MARY (2016)
Directed and produced by Jim Brown
MVD Visual, 78 minutes, Unrated.
Let's start 2017 off right. My album and movie of the month are the same: 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary. Feeling dispirited about life in modern America? Take a 78-minute dose of this outstanding documentary and you won't need to call me in the morning. This one is filled with all of the classic PP & M hits, a veritable potpourri stretching from "Blowing in the Wind" to "Wedding Song."
The film is a love letter to the trio and I will grant that it's an expurgated missive–one that only hints at downsides such as Mary Travers' four marriages, or Peter Yarrow's alcoholism battle and his 1970 conviction for making sexual passes at a 14-year-old girl. Mainly it deals with unpleasantness by showing the group's meteoric and confusing rise; and by placing them within the chaos of the era in which it occurred. The trio presaged other PR-created bands such as The Monkees and The Sex Pistols. If you never thought you'd see PP & M in the same sentence with such company, read on. Producer Albert Grossman created Peter Paul and Mary from nothing in 1961. Mary Travers (1936-2009) was a Red Diaper baby who was weaned on Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and union activism. She dropped out of high school to become a member of a group called the Song Swappers but, by 1961, was seen as talented but too independent; Grossman's first choice, Carolyn Hester, turned him down. Peter Yarrow was a minor solo artist at the time, and. Grossman originally wanted Dave Van Ronk, but chose Stookey–an unknown–when he decided Van Ronk wasn't commercial enough. Originally, being commercial was what it was all about. The Folk Revival was near its peak and acoustic music was white hot. Thus was born Peter Paul and Mary, a name chosen for its Christian/Biblical suggestiveness, though two of its central figures were Jews (Grossman and Yarrow) and Paul was only Stookey's middle name.
Grossman was such a brilliant promoter that PP & M were "stars" from the get-go; their 1962 debut album contained two songs that charted: "Lemon Tree" (# 35) and "If I Had a Hammer" (#10). Word of mouth and glowing reviews led to a second album, Moving, in 1962 and a #1 single: "Puff the Magic Dragon." (As the video notes, it was just a cute song and the anachronistic pot metaphors are simply folklore.) The rest, as the saying goes, is history. From "Puff" onward, the trio recorded eight more albums and charted with 17 other singles. Their 1963 cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" reached # 2; Dylan's original didn't chart! (Little known fact: Dylan has never had a # 1 hit.) 1969, PP & M topped the charts once again with "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Peter Paul & Mary were the ultimate cover band; they only wrote a handful of their own songs: "Puff," "Day is Done," "I Dig Rock and Roll Music," and "Wedding Song" among them. Instead they performed what many listeners came to see as "definitive" versions of songs from others: "Jet Plane" (John Denver), "Early Morning Rain" (Gordon Lightfoot), "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (Ewan MacColl), "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (Pete Seeger), "There But for Fortune " (Phil Ochs), "Don't Think Twice" (Dylan)….
If you wonder why, the video answers with its glorious concert footage. PP & M made the successful transition from beatnik bohemianism to political folk and pop stars through sheer talent and evolving values. If PP & M strike you as sedate and overly packaged, watch and listen carefully. First, consider those amazing three-part harmonies. (If you think they're easy, you try harmonizing with Mary Travers!) Both Stookey and Yarrow were far better guitar players than most realize, each wielding their instruments with verve, command, and driving energy. And there is a reason why Ms. Travers gets credit for inspiring generations of female musicians. Watch it for yourself. Give Mary Travers a song in 4/4 and watch her sock the first beat with a right uppercut and nail it the floor with a left hook on the three. She has been oft imitated, but seldom matched. Say what you want about how they cleaned up songs, tamed Dylan's rebellious spirit, or made pretty music that was supposed to be angry. Say it, because you'll find yourself singing along and smiling the whole way through the video.
Whatever you do, don't label PP & M a bunch of commercial phonies. The video captures wonderfully the trio's political evolution–their work with Central American campesinos, their commitment to civil rights and peace movements, Stookey's deepening spirituality, Yarrow's redemption, and Travers' discovery of feminism. Name your cause–PP & M walked in the footsteps of musician activists such as Seeger, Ochs, and Joan Baez. After musing upon the chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, think also upon the grace they achieved moving forward. Try to stay dry-eyed as Yarrow and Stookey reflect upon Travers' death from leukemia in 2009.
This is an uplifting video that blends interviews, anecdotes, recollections, and concert footage. Idealism is the glue that holds together changing styles, ideals, and the passage of time. It made me nostalgic, but also hopeful. Lord knows we can use all the hope we can get.