In recent years, the music world has acknowledged the 50th anniversaries of some big groups — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys, just to name a few.
Now, it’s Peter, Paul and Mary’s turn to celebrate that milestone, even though technically Noel Peter Stookey, Peter Yarrow, and the late Mary Travers formed their iconic folk trio in 1961 and released their first album in 1962 (an “inside joke” according to Stookey, who says the group earned a reputation for taking their time when making decisions, because they always made them together).
Nonetheless, the media, it seems, hasn’t been too keen on mentioning the birth of Peter, Paul and Mary and the cultural impact they had not just on music, but on social causes throughout their career. Perhaps it’s because as a folk group, with hits that included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” they’re just not perceived as “cool” as your standard 1960s rock groups. Or maybe it’s because they’re one of the few musical groups whose history is completely devoid of off-stage spats and diva-like behavior.
Whatever the reason, there are still some new PP&M materials that fans can rejoice over. For starters, PBS debuts a new documentary tonight called 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary. Besides showing clips of the trio performing their most famous songs along with interviews, it illustrates how involved they were with the Civil Rights movement, antiwar demonstrations, and political causes.
There’s also a recently published hardcover coffee table book, Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life (Imagine/Peter Yarrow) that features rare photographs and illustrations spanning the group’s career. (A review of the book is coming up on REBEAT!)
And because celebrating a PP&M anniversary wouldn’t be complete without music, we have a newly released album from Rhino to savor: Discovered: Live in Concert, featuring 12 previously unreleased songs only heard by fans who had the privilege of seeing them perform in concert. (A 13th track, “Mi Caballo Blanco,” was included in the group’s 2004 box set, Carry It On.) In fact, it was the compilation of the box set that inspired PP&M to start setting aside songs performed during shows from the 1980s and 1990s for a live album which became Discovered.
The arrangement is classic, acoustic PP&M: Yarrow and Stookey on guitar, occasionally joined by Richard Kniss on bass. The trio’s vocals are easily the third instrument. It’s a formula that PP&M almost never deviated from during decades of performing. The songs handpicked for Discovered were obviously carefully done so to give the listener the full spectrum of emotions typically experienced at a PP&M concert: joy, sadness, humor, and contemplation.
The rocking gospel “You Can Tell the World” by Bob Camp and Bob Gibson kicks off the album. This is a song previously covered by Simon & Garfunkel and the Seekers, but it seems like it was custom made for PP&M; its energetic pace is a walk in the park for Yarrow and Stookey’s lightning fast guitar skills and the trio’s vocals.
It’s well worth buying the album for the track “Give Yourself to Love” alone. Besides perfectly echoing the message that PP&M have been delivering through their music for five decades, it’s also the most bittersweet song in this compilation. It was written and originally recorded by folk artist Kate Wolf, who passed away from leukemia in 1986, the same disease that claimed Mary Travers’ life in 2009. It’s impossible to listen to this one without getting tears in your eyes.
Equally somber is the cover of John Gorka’s “Semper Fi” which hits at the heart of anyone who knew a war veteran, particularly the ones that struggled with “the wounds that never heal (that) are the easiest to hide.” The lyrics “war is only good for those / who make and sell the guns” easily add it to the list of pro-peace messages that PP&M have gently preached to audiences.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a PP&M album without some trademark silliness provided by Stookey. He’s in top comedic form while helping Peter Yarrow introduce and then perform their composition “Little Ship” (a humorous song which briefly mentions cannibalism) then again on his own “Parallel Universe,” both of which could have been contenders for their 1990 album “Peter, Paul and Mommy.” More subtle humor with a message comes through the cover of David Roth’s “Space Suits,” about life in the physical human body. Then there’s the jaunty, jazzy Stookey/Richard Kniss instrumental “Be Right Back” (“What bands play before they’re about to take a break,” explains Stookey) appropriately placed in the middle of the album. Meanwhile, rounding out the album is a rousing rendition of Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special.”
Discovered delivers a classic PP&M concert experience, albeit without any of their well-known hits. It’s also comforting that although Travers is no longer with us, her legacy continues with this album. I’ve heard critics and other fans say that towards the end, her illness robbed her of her stage voice. On Discovered, her vocals are as strong as ever; the harmonies with her two male band mates as tight as… well, as tight as a Peter, Paul and Mary harmony. Can anything else compare?