Peter, Paul and Mary Reflect on Career, Social Activism in New Documentary

“If you’re gonna sing the music, you’ve got to live the music” — Mary Travers, 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary

Narrated by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and with archival footage from Travers, 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary tells the story of how they did just that. The documentary is full of some of the trio’s most moving musical performances, from rarer songs (“In the Early Mornin’ Rain”) to career-defining hits like “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (which Yarrow still insists is about lost childhood innocence… not weed. Decide for yourself.) and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which they famously performed at the 1964 March on Washington.

The trio describes their initial meeting and early career, which quickly led to the life-changing experience of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and performing at the march — an event forever associated with the trio and their commitment to social justice.

Travers reminisced, “I remember being on the steps of the Lincoln Monument, and I truly believed at that moment that it was possible — proof-positive possible — that human beings could join together for their greater good.” Yarrow remarked, “We were three young people in our 20s who had known popularity for less than two years. But when we sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ it changed the way we saw the world and our role in it.”

[Hear more about Peter, Paul and Mary’s activism straight from Peter Yarrow himself in our exclusive, two-part interview!]

From then on, their music took on a greater weight and they realized that participating in the causes they believed in, like the Selma Civil Rights March, could both inspire and alienate their fans — at times, to the point of death threats. And yet, they persisted.

From the Civil Rights Movement, the trio became outspoken protesters against the Vietnam War and fierce advocates for the 1968 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign.

“I think they helped us Americans to be our authentic selves, because they were. They helped to bring empathy and wholeness, I would say, as human beings, into the mainstream through their music.” —Gloria Steinem in 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary

The documentary doesn’t just chronicle the music or their causes, but a meaningful and long-lasting friendship that was inexorably connected to their musical choices and to the power and connectedness of their harmonies. As Stookey muses, “We’re not familially connected, we’re heart-connected. And so when we bend to each other, it’s because we care and have respect for each other. And I think you can really feel that in the harmonies and textures.”

That’s evident in everything from heartfelt protest songs like “The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life),” to fun tracks like “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” their self-penned send up of popular music rife with Stookey’s many spot-on voice impressions of their contemporaries.

But, after a time, the trio found that each had other passions to pursue beyond their work as PP&M, and at that point, they embarked on a seven-year hiatus. If you’re looking for details of the reasons why, including the scandal that plagued Yarrow in the early ’70s, you will not find it here. Fans who are intimate with the trio’s story may feel that this makes it an incomplete telling, but as with other documentaries spearheaded by the subjects themselves (e.g., The Beatles Anthology), they choose to blur the negative out of the story in favor of telling an uplifting narrative.

They parted friends, but eventually, a cause — an anti-nuclear rally — brought the trio back together. From then on, they continued supporting causes close to their hearts like eradicating homelessness and the anti-Apartheid movement. As they protested, they acknowledged how the songs they were singing — many of them decades old and in response to a different kind of injustice — became relevant again and again.

One particularly relevant song was Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” As Travers remarked, “It was a great song when he wrote it over 40 years ago; today, unfortunately, it seems even more relevant, as America turns its face on its immigrants and its migrant workers.” Once again, in 2017, Peter, Paul and Mary is as relevant as ever.

PP&M’s narration is augmented with videos of live performances and rare photos; and 50 years later, that magic remains. But even though interviews with a later-in-life Travers give the illusion that she is present in the documentary, her loss is felt throughout.

The documentary ends with a touching tribute to Mary in her final days and the 2009 memorial service that truly embodied her spirit and dedication to social justice — which then-Secretary of State John Kerry called “a class reunion of the Nixon enemies list.” Friends, family, and famous admirers like Gloria Steinem describe the intelligent and fiercely feminist Mary’s impact on the world. The tributes are heartwarming, inspiring, and heartbreaking.

Even after Mary’s passing, Yarrow and Stookey still have continued their commitment to social justice and music, both separately and as a duo. Both have continued using music to spawn social justice — Yarrow with Operation Respect, an anti-bullying campaign, and Stookey with Music to Life, which provides “music-based experiences that move people to social action.” The documentary ends with the present day, where both men perform folk music with their children and are grounded in love and family.

The 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary DVD is identical to the documentary that appeared on Public Television in 2015 alongside the companion book, Peter Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life, but the DVD includes four extra songs — two from their 1986 25th anniversary concert, one from the 1993 Peter, Paul, and Mommy Too special — and in a bittersweet surprise, a new recording of Peter and Noel singing “A Soalin'” — the duet is wonderful, with both men in excellent voice. Mary’s voice is sorely missed, but her presence is felt nonetheless.

Get your copy of 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary on Amazon.

About Erika White 64 Articles
Erika White is simply obsessed with music and culture of the '60s and '70s. Her writing focuses on the Beatles and the incredible fandom that has kept their legacy growing for five decades and counting. Erika is also a graphic designer, musical theatre geek, rabid Whovian, and Anglophile who lives in the NYC metro area. Check out her Beatles website and follow her on Twitter.