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In the 1960s, the group Peter, Paul and Mary brought folk music out of the coffeehouses and onto the airwaves. With their seamless three-part harmonies, they achieved the commercial success that paved the way for performers like Bob Dylan and John Denver. Their political lyrics struck a chord with the baby boom generation, as they gave voice to the struggle for civil rights, the women’s movement and efforts to end the war in Vietnam. They played together as a trio for nearly five decades, until the death of Mary Travers in 2009. In 2014 Diane talked to Peter and Paul as they looked back on 50 years in music.
- Peter Yarrow musician and member of the group Peter, Paul and Mary
- Noel Paul Stookey musician and member of the group Peter, Paul and Mary
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary sold millions of albums in the 1960s with hits like "If I Had a Hammer," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Puff the Magic Dragon." They played for John F. Kennedy and along Martin Luther King. In the decades that followed, the trio continued to perform, record and engage in the political activism that became their trademark. A new book of photographs and recollections tells the story of their half century collaboration.
MS. DIANE REHMIt's titled, "Peter, Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life." Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey join me from the NPR studios in New York for a look back. I'm sure you'll want to weigh in with your favorites. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to you.
MR. PETER YARROWWelcome to you too, Diane.
YARROWDo you have, do you have your very own hashtag?
REHMI have my very own hashtag. What can I say? Now, you know, I got this gorgeous book in front of me.
REHMIt really is. And on the cover, the three of you are at what I am assuming is the Lincoln Memorial, correct?
YARROWThat's right. That's the march on Washington in 1963 on August 28th.
REHMThat's the march on Washington. And you have Secretary of State John F. Kerry doing the introduction. How did you manage that?
YARROWI paid him a lot of money. John Kerry was -- during the period of time that he was the leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War was very close to the group. So, very, very early on, we established a very personal relationship with him and we campaigned for him throughout the years. So when he did that introduction, he does the most -- he wrote every word himself, by the way. The most amazing overview of the significance of our association, of the trio.
YARROWBut he also creates the idea that this is an invocation, this book, in its narrative and the illustrations, an invocation to carry it forward. Which, on a day like today, after the results of last night, for progressives like myself and Noel, it takes -- you have to think in terms of carrying it on, because that perspective that we embrace needs the kind of continuing energy. I mean, right, wrong, or whatever, our point of view, which has to do with equity on all levels.
YARROWWhether it's racial or economic or the survival of the climate before the interests of oil and gas. That continues, so even as we sit here looking back, we are absolutely moving forward and it's a pleasure to be with you.
REHMThank you. And would you explain to me how Peter and Noel and Mary became Peter, Paul and Mary?
MR. NOEL PAUL STOOKEYThere was a moment when the three of us were collected in Mary's apartment. I'm not sure it's captured quite in the book. But it -- Albert says have you come up with a name for your group? And, well, we thought of The Willows. And Albert, I think, not John Court, but Albert Grossman, who was quite impresario at the time, had -- was handling Odetta (sp?) and Ian and Sylvia and many of the folk mentors, as well as people that we knew, our peers. Said if Noel changes his name to Paul, we could call the group Peter, Paul and Mary. Well, that was so euphonic. And there was a song that said,
MR. NOEL PAUL STOOKEYSo, I said okay Albert, I'm not going to change my name to Paul. But I'll take it on as a middle name. Diane, little knowing that within a year, my middle name would take me on. I just was overwhelmed. We were all overwhelmed, really, by the immediate contact and awareness of Americans' thirst for this kind of authenticity in their music.
REHMAnd I want to take you back to that very first moment when the three of you sang together, played together in that tiny apartment. And somehow, you realized that your voices worked so beautifully together.
YARROWI just figured something out, Diane. Which, I don't know if I should say this on the air, but I'm going to. What the heck. You read the book. You cheated. Yes, there was that moment in Mary's apartment.
STOOKEYNo, no, no. It was my apartment.
YARROWNo. Oh, that's right. It was in Noel's apartment. My mistake. We went -- Mary and I went over there. Mary had already known Noel and actually sung with him at the Gaslight. I had just sung with Mary for the first time and we went over there to see what our voices sounded like. And we sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb," because that was song we all knew. Mary and I were asking Noel to sing some very esoteric folk songs, which he did not know, because he wasn't a folkie at the time.
YARROWSo we did "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and whoever sang the lead, it sounded amazing. It wasn't -- when I sang with Mary, just myself, it wasn't amazing. It was something. But when the three of us, there was a human chemistry, a magic.
STOOKEYYes, right. And it was beyond tonality. I think that's the interesting thing, and that is the thing that sustained the group for 50 years. The book speaks about many of the activities, you know, and the advocacies of which we were a part. But it can't really explain the tenderness, and I'm trying not to be too corny, but there -- when you sing in a group, anybody who's ever sung in a group, knows you have to yield to one another. There's a certain -- you don't sing full voice, you don't sing with your full personality, because you want to mesh.
STOOKEYAnd we automatically meshed. I mean, we just were sensitive to each other. Even in those early days, and that sustained us.
REHMAnd just singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" somehow allowed you to know that, to feel that.
REHMAnd to hear it.
STOOKEYYeah. It was a very -- it was a very moving moment.
YARROWIt could have been "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," too. But appropriately enough, Mary's name was in the middle of the first song.
STOOKEYI hadn't thought about the significance of that.
REHMSo, then what happened? In 1962 came "Lemon Tree," correct?
STOOKEYWas it '62 or 61'?
YARROWNo, it was '62.
YARROWAnd we were out in San Francisco.
STOOKEYWe were out in San Francisco. We pulled over to the side of the road in our Volkswagon, headed for a radio station giggling...
YARROWWe were all, all, the three of us in one Volkswagon.
STOOKEYWell, along with a promoter.
YARROWAnd the guitars.
STOOKEYAnd Don Graham.
STOOKEYAnd giggling our heads off. It was just like that scene in, what's the Tom Hanks movie? You know, "That Thing You Do." We just were hyst -- I mean, we'd never heard ourselves on the radio before. My gosh, what a moment.
YARROWAnd that, and that, and that broke out then. And then, not long thereafter, they released "If I Had a Hammer." And then, something dramatic happened, because that song was not about romance. It was about consciousness. It was about dreams and hopes.
YARROWAnd commitment. And it says, if we don't take care of what's important, those things will go away, things like justice and freedom. And the answer, it says in the song, is love between our brothers and our sisters.
REHMYou were so young when you recorded this.
YARROWI knew you were gonna say something nice like that.
REHMWhat was it like, I mean, to realize you had this huge hit? And here you were, so young.
STOOKEYWe felt like, we felt like maybe the younger brother and sister of a very large family. We had -- this song came, as you probably know, Diane, from Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes, members of The Weavers. And this message was part of a much larger ethic that carried us and I think reminded, globally, I think it reminded people listening to music that they could be brought together about something other than dating behavior. That, in fact, we were going to paint an image of what we thought the world might be.
YARROWYou know, we had -- when you asked the question, my mind went to the moment when the three of us sang "If I Had a Hammer" for President Kennedy. And it was at the National Guard Armory where we were on the stage with the likes of Carol Burnett, Joan Sutherland, Yves Montand, Gene Kelly, and here we were, these very young people. And there was a sense of unreality about it, but by the same token...
REHMAnd short break here. Right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, I have the great pleasure of speaking with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey. They're, of course, members of the group Peter, Paul and Mary. There is a brand new book out with both text and many, many beautiful photographs of the "Fifty Years in Music and Life" that the trio Peter, Paul and Mary enjoyed together. And they are celebrating their 50th anniversary with the release of a new album and a documentary that's going to air on PBS on December 1. And I, for one, am certainly going to be watching that one. Tell me how you chose the songs that you ultimately sang, Peter.
YARROWLet me jump in here for just a moment, Diane. I wanted to make a distinction. The 50th anniversary for Peter, Paul and Mary happened five years ago. But, you know, when somebody passes it takes some time to think about their loss and what that 50 years meant. So it's taken us three years to write this book and a lot of consideration about making another television show. We didn't want to do that at all at first. It was just Mary's loss was too fresh.
YARROWBut now so what we have to look at this is not an anniversary but a celebration of a time together.
YARROWAnd that, I think -- because people tend to think, oh, it's their 50th anniversary. It was more important. It was a whole period of time that we were reflecting on it.
STOOKEYAnd part of the reason -- to answer your question, part of the reason that the book came together in the manner that it did is much like the way we picked our songs. There was a consensus that had to be gained. And if any one of us didn't want to do a song, then it went to committee, a committee of three people. And we would either rewrite a lyric, which we had done several times. We did with -- even had the audacity to do it for Phil Ochs' "There But for Fortune" we wrote the bridge because we felt that it did not address world hunger.
STOOKEYThere were many things -- many decisions that were made that way. And in that sense the book was delayed because Mary's wishes, which were expressed continually and are expressed throughout the book from her earlier writings, were kind of a presence that we had to reckon with and a sensitivity that we had to take into account when we made decisions about what to include in the book and what direction it would take.
REHMYou know, several years ago, I think it must've been six or seven at least, you were here in Washington at our old studios on Brandy Wine Street, the three of you. And I was in the control room while you sang "Puff the Magic Dragon." And all of us were in that control room just singing away with you. And Mary, at the time, looked so well. She looked so strong. How quickly did she begin to go downhill?
STOOKEYWell, she had a resurgence after having the -- what do you call it, Peter?
STOOKEY...bone marrow transplant.
STOOKEYYep, and, you know, she lost her hair in chemo, but then she came -- she looked gorgeous. As a matter of fact, the picture on the back of the book of the three of us together, you know, in the tavern in the village...
REHM...where she has darling short hair.
YARROWAnd look how beautiful -- that's before she had to start taking cortisone because of the effects of the chemo. She had beaten cancer. She didn't die of cancer. But one of those very virulent chemos had caused as a side effect, which it does sometimes...
YARROW...yeah, an inflammation of the lung, which could be handled with the -- and it was ultimately that that -- and the need to do that that made her gain all that weight again and then ultimately compromised her kidneys. But the truth of the matter is that when we were there in that studio and she was singing, she may have been extraordinary, youthful, wonderful. But even after she was in a wheelchair and on oxygen, she insisted, until four months before she passed, that we sing together because she loved singing on stage. And, I'm telling you, some of her performances at that time were astonishing, even with the weakness of that lung that was so inflamed.
REHMShe had a power somewhere within her to bring out that vocal talent, that vocal...
STOOKEYAnd she also had -- and, Diane, she had a sense of humor about her condition as well. She used to refer to the tubes that linked from her nose around her neck to the oxygen tank as her new jewelry. And she would wiggle it on stage for her audience, you know. So...
STOOKEYAnd then, you know, we're not without sensitivity as well, so we all sat down during the period of time when Mary was in the wheelchair. You know, we all sat down and that was -- we were all on the same level, you know.
REHMSo you chose your songs very carefully. You chose them, if need be, by committee. There are several photographs of the three of you on stage holding hands. Did you always do that as you ran on stage?
STOOKEYAlways. Yeah, we always did. We didn't always run on stage. We got a little old for running someplace (unintelligible) ...
REHMYeah, yeah, yeah.
STOOKEYWe strode confidently, yes.
YARROWWe ran as long as we could -- there were characters -- I don't know where it started -- we ran on stage with our -- holding each other's hands. And it was not somebody that was telling us to do that.
YARROWIt was just something that we had a lot of energy, a lot of excitement. And every time we got on stage there was that sense -- you know, not only that but other acts look at the audience all the time. You see all the singers looking -- we looked at the audience but we also looked at each other.
YARROWAnd that provided us a sense of the feeling, the emotion and the body language of each other so we could melt our -- not only our voices but our hearts.
REHMThere is one song that truly has always touched me and that's "Blowin' in the Wind."
REHMAnd you're making me cry. You really, really are.
STOOKEYOh, I see your hand over your heart. Yeah.
YARROW'Cause (unintelligible) a lot -- please.
REHMI know that Mary once said that singing that song at the historic March on Washington was among the highlights of her career. What was that like for you?
STOOKEYI think it was particularly moving to Mary because she recognized the enormity of the moment. I was staggered by the enormity and couldn't really -- I was like a tree in a forest. I really couldn't see the forest. I think Mary had the privilege somehow of seeing both herself as part of the movement and the movement in totality. Don't you think so, Peter?
YARROWWell, you know, I think you're right because she took my hand and she was the one that said to me, Peter, we're watching history being made while Martin Luther King was delivering his speech. But my sense of it just living in the present for her was that oddly enough for many of us who didn't know if it would be dangerous or there would be police riots or, you know, people riots or whatever, there was nothing of that sort. It was really a moment of community with a quarter of million people.
YARROWAnd when we sang the song it just peaked on the charts the week before, so people knew it. And they lifted their hands -- we have images of it -- in the air and swayed back and forth singing the song with us so that they created the movement -- the moment as much as we did. So for me what it was was an epiphany of saying, you know something, all this extraordinary love and energy is -- can really make a difference. And it inspired a commitment that never left any of us.
YARROWI mean, it just -- and Mary was right in her vantage point. It was a marking place for us as a nation, one that I think has spawned many, many positive movements. And something that compels us to continue to march on that road.
REHMBut I know you marched in Selma-Montgomery in the 1965 march. And your own record company warned you that there might be some backlash to that. Did that in any way make you think twice about going on with this effort to help the country understand the importance of racial integration?
STOOKEYWe had already crossed that Rubicon. No. We had made our commitment to each other. We understood that this was not a choice anymore. This was a dedication. And it -- as Peter said, it generated a lot of music to follow, whether it was -- and we also became aware of the fact that civil rights was a tip of an iceberg called human rights. And human rights was connected to the environment. It was connected to the anti-nuke. It was connected to the protests against the war in Vietnam.
STOOKEYAnd, you know, in a funny way this book tries to touch all of those points throughout those 50 years. I mean, the -- you know, when protests fell off the popular map in let's say the mid '60s and then was resurrected every once in a while by let's say John Hall and, you know, the anti-nuke movement, I think people thought that folk music was a little out of fashion, not realizing that it was happening all around them in very different genres.
STOOKEYAnd when we went to be, you know, with the strawberry pickers in California, when Peter called us back in 1978 after seven years off for good behavior to protest the online -- the possibility of a nuclear reactor coming online near the fault in California, these were all steps towards the dedication that had been made. So there was not really -- there was no concern about loss of record sales. And, you know, we were dedicated to a -- we had a higher conviction.
YARROWYeah, and, you know, we were young. And you just -- when you're that young you think that you're immortal in a certain sense. And I think that you're, in a sense, wondrously unrealistic, you know, because you think, hey, everything is going to be great. So part of it is virtue, I will admit, and part of it is just the wonderment of foolhardiness of that kind of idealism that held us in its grasp.
REHMWas there ever a point where you felt any fear whatsoever for yourselves as a group or for each of you individually?
STOOKEYOh, yes, there were -- I mean, we had threats, you know, either written or thinly veiled or given to somebody who was producing a concert that there would be, you know, a bomb or that there would be, you know, some kind of outbreak of violence. But for the most part we emerged pretty much unscathed. We just went there anyway.
YARROWThere was a moment, for me, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death there was a big march. And it's worthy of being pointed out. I was marching with thousands of people.
REHMWill you hold that thought...
REHM...until after a short break?
REHMAnd welcome back. I have the great pleasure of talking with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, members of the folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary. They are celebrating their 50th anniversary with the release of a new album and a documentary that's going to air on PBS on December 1st. And just before the break, Peter, you were talking about that moment when you really did have some fear.
YARROWWell, we all did. There was -- a bomb went off. We were -- it was marching there to commemorate the death of Martin -- the assassination of Martin Luther King. And it was Clarence Jones, who was the editor of the Amsterdam News and an attorney for Martin Luther King, an extraordinary guy, and his daughter were on either end. And the bomb went off, and I sometimes ask people, what do you think we did? And it's interesting, because nobody got down on the pavement or started running.
YARROWWe all held hands, crossed our hands, our arms in front of each other, and started singing, "We Shall Overcome."
YARROWAnd, you know, when you hear about the Civil Rights Movement and you hear about the people who really did get attacked. And it wasn't a false alarm like this bomb was, which was only a smoke bomb. You hear that they went to jails and they were beaten and they were pulled off of the buses, the freedom riders.
YARROWYeah, all that. And they, they insisted on singing. In fact, the jailers went to John Lewis and said, you know, you have to stop singing. And he said, we're not. We're singing. And they said, well, you'll sleep on cold steel. We'll take away your mattresses. And they said, take them away. They obviously needed that music to restore their hearts and their courage. So music performed a very profound service to the efforts of the movements. And also, it provided a sense of comfort and safety in the times of danger.
YARROWAnd, well, though we, as Noel noted, we remained unscathed. We sang at the lane of the gravestone for Andrew Goodman. We were close to those people who paid huge prices, and sometimes, the ultimate price.
REHMHere's a tweet from Ben, who said, my first concert, at maybe five years old, was Peter, Paul and Mary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Ben goes on to say, I remember falling asleep after "Puff the Magic Dragon," which is something that Peter, you wrote. Tell us about "Puff the Magic Dragon." And then, perhaps, you'll play it for us.
YARROWOkay. Well, here it is. I'll do both at the same time. (singing) Once upon a time, a long time ago, a guy by the name of Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow wrote a song in 1959 about a dragon. And people thought, well, maybe that song has another meaning, but they were wrong. It was only about the innocence of childhood lost. And so we're going to sing a little bit of that song.
YARROWWell, you know, sometimes, when I ask children to come onstage and they sing the song. They know it. They didn't learn it for the occasion. Even three year olds sing it. And so, it's a song that's lasted. And since it's lasted so long, if you're listening on the radio, sing this song.
REHMHow sweet that is.
YARROWThank you, Diane. Thank you for the request.
YARROWPeople are tweeting you, even while we're sitting here talking.
REHMOf course they are.
REHMThey're sending us emails, they're actually on the phone. I'm going to take a couple of calls. Let's go first to Rich in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Hi Rich. You're on the air.
RICHHello, Diane. Love the show.
RICHAnd thanks very much for taking the call.
RICHAnd Peter and Noel, you've been a part of my life for a long time. I remember -- I grew up in a very conservative Republican household. But my dad had a wonderful taste in music. And we were listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte. And I remember in -- I think it was like second or third grade, the teacher had asked for us to, you know, for individuals who wanted to volunteer to come up and sing a song. And the one that I knew by heart was "If You Miss the Train I'm On."
YARROWAhh. 500 miles.
YARROWGood for you.
RICHAnd I actually did it.
YARROWDid you get applause?
RICHI don't even -- I don't remember.
STOOKEYDid you pay ASCAP for your performance?
REHMGood question. Thanks for calling, Rich. Do you remember...
YARROWYes. As a matter of fact, there's -- here's a version of it. Here we go, like this.
REHMOh boy was that gorgeous.
STOOKEYThanks, Rich, for that memory.
REHMAll right, here's another caller, Susan, in Cleveland, Ohio. You're on the air.
SUSANHi Diane. I had the privilege of seeing you a few weeks ago, but I also had the privilege of seeing Peter and Paul a couple of years ago at what I believe was possibly their first tour and maybe their first concert after Mary had passed. So my question was, was there ever a discussion if there wasn't all three of you, there wouldn't be any performing after that? And do you feel that you had Mary's permission, I guess, to go and perform? Cause she certainly felt like she was there that evening.
STOOKEYThat's nicely put.
STOOKEYWe are very aware of Mary's presence, even in her absence. We do very few of these shows. They tend to be, of course, almost like memoriams. And very nostalgic. And there was never a question of from -- I think, I think the rudest suggestion, perhaps, would be aren't you gonna get a girl and replace Mary? Which, of course, you know, is status quo for a lot of pop groups. You just replace a member and move on, but we were a much more integrated family than that. And the concept of, you know, just sustaining a commercial career really flew in opposition to what the ethic of the group was all about.
STOOKEYSo, that choice would, of course, never be made. But Peter and I, you know, feel, you know, that we're carrying it on. You know, really, in effect.
STOOKEYWhen we, when we call, almost incant Mary's presence at these concerts.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But I find myself wondering what it felt like that very first time you sang without her. Can you take us back?
YARROWSure. Actually, we sang without her a number of times before her passing, because we had concerts scheduled with her that she wanted to do, but she didn't feel well enough to go there.
YARROWAnd we learned at that point that by singing the songs and just giving ourselves to it, we did entire concerts without Mary doing the same music that we would have done with her. But somehow, she was present. People have said, she hears us in our voices. They even say, sometimes, that we literally think we heard Mary's voice.
REHMIndeed. And part of that, Peter, I think, is because you have this extraordinary range, full octave, at least. I mean, I heard you jump earlier and it does sound as though, at times, there is a third voice there.
YARROWYou know, it's not so much what notes we're hitting. It's the spirit with which we're singing that really, once again, reiterates the very thing that held us together, that we heard that first day when we sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She's not there, but it's like a husband and wife that get to be completing each other's sentences. You -- there's a cadence, there's a rhythm. There's a spirit, so that every time I sing alone or Noel sings alone, or we sing together, Mary is there.
YARROWYou don't have a relationship for 50 years without its becoming just the very part of your makeup and the way you are.
STOOKEYYou know, I think it might even be summed up at the end of the book, that picture of the three of us from the back. You know that, as you're nodding your head, I can see where we're walking away. Tells a little bit of the story of one of Mary's favorite phrases, which she learned from a neighbor of hers, whenever they would be in -- whenever they would go to lunch or there would be a discussion or something, she loved this person. And the person had to leave or Mary had to leave, the last phrase that they said was, to be continued.
STOOKEYAnd, and in the book, we talk about that. And the fact is, this is a dialogue with the world that is to be continued. This is an ethic to be shared and admired, respected and passed on to a younger generation. To be continued.
REHMAnd be indeed, to be continued. Donna from Facebook writes, they have so many well-loved songs we can listen to over and over. But I wonder, which one is their favorite to perform repeatedly?
YARROWWe both answer the same way. It's -- Mary's answered the question. She said, it's like having children. The one that is engaged with you, at that particular moment on that particular day, that moment is your -- that child's your favorite. That, you know...
REHMGo out for us with that one.
REHMGo out with -- go out now.
YARROWWith this -- with, okay. Here we go.
REHMWith whatever is in your heart.
YARROWOkay. I think.
REHMPeter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey. Their new book celebrating their 50th anniversary. And the release of a new album and a documentary that's going to air on PBS December 1st. I love you both. Thank you.
STOOKEYThank you, Diane.
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