Sunday, May 04, 2008
One Big Paper, Two Presentations, One Oral Final to go...
By 3 p.m. Wednesday, should I survive to see that hour, I will be done with all my written work for seminary. I have a 20-page, academic New Testament paper due by Wednesday morning, two group class presentations on Wednesday, and an oral final in United Methodist studies on Friday afternoon. Graduation, God willing, is May 17!
I would love to write a post about the joy -- truly -- of attending the UMC General Conference in Fort Worth as well as the ongoing heartbreak of the denomination's disagreement on the worth of all people. Until this moment, I hadn't actually pondered the name of the locale of the meeting -- Fort WORTH. Anyway, my hope is that someday we see all people of inherent worth within the kingdom of God. I am especially grateful to folks like Molly, who led the Cal-Pac, delegation, and the leadership of the bishops of the church and the witness of the Reconciling Ministries Network. There's a lot to ponder prayerfully from the meeting and no time really to process it much less blog about it. So, stay tuned...
Until then, I thought I'd post an ethics research paper on Peter, Paul and Mary. The course is Voices of Non-Violence and the topic was sanctioned by the professor. This is as cool as this time last year when one of my assignments was to read a mystery novel! The paper was properly footnoted but those citations didn't tranfer easily into blogger, so I've left the bibliography by way of citation.
Voices for Justice: The Music and Message of Peter, Paul and Mary
“And now, a group of singers, who have come to help express in song, what this great meeting is all about, I give you now, Peter Paul and Mary…”
With that introduction, the folk trio Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers took the stage on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – the march where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Peter, Paul and Mary sang “If I Had a Hammer,” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes – a simple song about freedom and justice – and they have sung about freedom and justice ever since.
Forty years later, in liner notes to the group’s 2003 album, In These Times trio member Mary Travers wrote:
Now more than ever, the world needs all of us to pay attention.
The rain forests vanishing, caught between poverty and greed.
The continent of Africa, awash with war and disease.
Here in America, human rights crumble under the threat of terrorism.
Now more than ever, we need laughter not tears.
Songs not screams. Hope not despair.
Now we need to put aside history that perpetuates war.
Now we must save our tomorrows by honoring today.
Now more than ever.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s musical activism has now entered its fifth decade, contributing not only to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement but to human rights and peace movements throughout the world.
While the trio began in 1961 as a group brought together when music manager Albert Grossman hoped to create a hipper version of the Kingston Trio, one of their distinguishing traits from the beginning was the presence of unveiled political positions within their appealing folk-pop sound.
Their 1962 debut album “Peter, Paul and Mary” included “If I Had a Hammer” and folk singer-songwriter Pete Seeger’s anti-war song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” From the beginning, their music had a message.
In his book, Which Side Are You On?, Dick Weissman notes that their commitment to political causes set the group apart from other folk groups of the time: “They took on the mantle of political folk singers, which either didn’t interest the other folk-pop groups, or was something they avoided out of fear of being blacklisted.”
Also unlike the other folk-pop groups, Peter, Paul and Mary had a series of hit singles and top-selling albums, with eight albums selling 500,000 or more . Their first album charted in “Billboard Magazine’s” Top 10 for 10 months, stayed in the Top 20 for two years, and did not fall off the Top 100 until three-and-a-half years after its release.
Their music had a message and it was popular.
When they stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963 and sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” by a new songwriter named Bob Dylan, the group was already well known. The group’s single of Dylan’s song was at No. 5 on Billboard magazine’s charts, their second album, “Moving,” had been certified as a gold album (the metallic musical standard of the time) the day before, and their debut album was in its 71st consecutive week on Billboard’s album charts, listed at No. 7.
In a 1995 interview with former New York Times music critic William Ruhlmann, Yarrow reflected on his hopes for the message of the music. “I knew that the world could be a better place,” Yarrow said. “I knew that folk music could and should have a role in making all that work … articulating the vision and expressing creatively the sense of consensus by the activist community, by the dreamers, by the organizers.”
Yarrow also differentiated between his love of music and his realization of the political and social justice possibilities of folk songs:
I really entered folk music more because I saw its capacity to be an actual expression of commonality than I did because the music is so extraordinary. Yeah, the music is wonderful. I studied the violin and so are the violin concerti. But, what really got to me was the way in which folk music communicated and allowed one to live the sense of commonality and how that sense could then be translated into any number of forms: spiritual connection, political activism, formation of a community of one sort or another in a geographical sense or in the sense of people united with a particular sense of their direction.
The group performed and recorded songs that became icons in the soundtrack of the anti-war protests and the emerging social justice movements of the 1960s. Their music spanned the decade, featuring their own songs and drawing on folk classics like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
They also shared their spotlight by recording new works by emerging songwriters, most notably Bob Dylan. The group’s third album, 1963’s “In the Wind,” was titled after Dylan’s protesting lament, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which the trio performed. (That album also featured Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Quit Your Low Down Ways.”) Weissman notes that Dylan’s own early recordings did not sell well and that it was these recordings of his work by Peter, Paul and Mary that drew national attention to Dylan.
Of those early years, journalist Barry Alfonso has observed, “They arrived on the cultural scene just as their nation was coming to grips with long-deferred issues, foremost among them the demand for racial equality. And, like countless other Americans, they decided they couldn’t remain neutral during this time of reckoning.”
Two events dramatically changed the tenor of the times and the intensity of social activism in their day. The first was the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy three months after the March on Washington – a devastating event that transformed the hopefulness of the early 1960s that had accompanied Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. The second was the large-scale entry of the United States military into Vietnam in August 1964.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s music already spoke to these times, and their songs for social justice as well as their personal commitment to the Civil Rights Movement continued. Alfonso writes: “In a real sense, Peter, Paul and Mary gave voice to a shifting in the national conscience. And, by risking their careers by plunging into direct action, they tried to live out the implications of what their songs talked about.” Peter, Paul and Mary joined other musicians and actors in support of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, where the threat was not just to their careers but to their lives.
The musical landscape had also changed with the popularity in the United States of British rock groups the Beatles and the Rolling Stones beginning in 1964. Pop and rock quickly replaced folk as the music of the day. Liner notes for Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1965 album See What Tomorrow Brings mark the transition, noting that “Bob Shelton no longer considers himself the folk music critic of The New York Times. He’s now the pop music critic.” As those liner notes also reflect, though, Peter, Paul and Mary’s popularity continued to grow, “filling stadiums, auditoriums and hi-fi speakers all over the world.” And, in the hyperbole of the genre, these liner notes concluded: “Their message is the same as that of any artist through the centuries, a sermon of truth and beauty in the context of their times. And the fact that PP&M can appreciate the Rolling Stones or even the Beatles is added proof that PP&M are in touch with their times.”
Their success as a folk trio continued for nine years from their debut, yet they each had the talent and prominence to pursue individual careers. In 1970, the group announced a year-long sabbatical to pursue individual interests that turned into an amicable split lasting until 1978. Had that been the end of the trio’s story, they still would be remembered as one of the most successful American folk groups. And they would also still be remembered as significant voices for social justice during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and as voices for peace during the Vietnam Era.
In the decades since their 1978 reunion, however, their music and their social action have been present in many of the world’s human rights and social justice causes. Their greatest fame, their widest popularity, their greatest success may have been in the 1960s, but their broadest work for social justice came in the 30 years that followed their reunion.
Coretta Scott King, who carried on the civil rights work of her husband Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected in 2003 on the contribution Peter, Paul and Mary made not just in the 1960s but in their life’s work: “Peter, Paul and Mary are not only three of the greatest folk artists ever, but also three of the performing arts’ most outstanding champions of social justice and peace. They have lent their time and talents to the Civil Rights Movement, labor struggles, and countless campaigns for human rights for decades, and their compassion and commitment remain as strong as their extraordinary artistry.”
It was another social justice cause that reunited the group in 1978. During their time apart, each had recorded solo albums, but Peter Yarrow had also continued to be active in giving voice to social justice causes. In 1978, he was putting together an anti-nuclear song rally at the Hollywood Bowl and he called Noel Stookey and Mary Travers to see if they shared his concern and to see if they would join him for the concert. (Remembering the preparation for the event on the group’s website, Yarrow admitted that his activist work had been easier when the group was together. “I always was able to do the organizing that I had done in the past by virtue of saying, ‘Well, Peter, Paul, and Mary are doing it,’ then other people would jump on board.” )
The trio committed to the performance and then to a reunion album and a reunion tour, all of which were intended to be temporary. Yet what they found in that first concert was that their collective voice was more powerful and had greater reach than their individual careers. Yarrow remembered that anti-nuclear concert at the Hollywood Bowl this way: “We went out there, and it was amazing. It was explosive when we got on stage, and it was clear, not just that people remembered us, but we felt needed. … I said, ‘Yeah, people still make us feel like we can be useful and helpful and involved in the struggles of today.’ And, of course, for me, that was always the key to my involvement with the music because it did more than entertain.”
The album, titled Reunion, was not commercially successful, but the reunion tour had that same sense of energy and purpose that Yarrow described from that first reunion performance during the anti-nuclear protest. The group toured 18 cities, performing their iconic songs from the 1960s as well as songs from their reunion album and, as became their practice, taking the stage in individual sets to highlight each member’s passions and performance styles. Travers described the group’s reunion this way in program notes for the concert tour: “It’s a reunion of the best sort. There is surprisingly little reminiscing and a lot of what we want to say about life now.” I attended the last of those concerts at the aptly named Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas. It was my first Peter, Paul and Mary concert and it was intended to be the group’s last. What I remember most was the encore. The group came back to the stage and played and sang a lengthy encore set and then stood arm-in-arm drinking in the applause and affirmation. It was as if they didn’t want to leave the stage.
For about a year, they returned to their individual careers, but reunited again in 1980 to tour. In December 1981, they recorded a live album that was released in the United States in 1983. Where their Reunion album had contained songs of coming back together, their live album, Lifelines, reconnected them and their work to social justice causes and set the tone for years of concerts and recordings to come. The album included an anti-nuclear song called, “Power,” by John and Johanna Hall and Phil Och’s “There But For Fortune,” protesting hunger, homelessness and the costs of war. The album also included a short ballad, the chorus of which could serve as a living epitaph for the group: Music speaks louder than words/It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to/Music speaks louder than words/When you sing, people understand.
The reunited group was also recommitted to using their music for social justice. In 1983, Travers and Yarrow traveled to El Salvador, where U.S. involvement in a conflict between the Salvadoran government and its leftist opposition were reminiscent of the early U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By 1985, Peter, Paul and Mary’s music and message were, once again, inextricably linked. That year, they recorded as singles Stookey’s “El Salvador,” protesting the U.S. involvement in Central America, and Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” in support of the Sanctuary movement which tried to provide safety for Central American refugees, Russian Jews and others fleeing their homes as the result of human rights abuses.
The following year, with a new recording contract from Gold Castle Records, they recorded No Easy Walk to Freedom, an album that combined the sound and passion of their work in the 1960s with the social justice issues of the 1980s. The title song protests South African apartheid and the album cover has a picture of Travers and her mother and daughter being arrested protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. The album also incorporated the Yarrow and Stookey’s social justice singles the group had released the year before.
Yarrow’s “No Easy Walk to Freedom, written with Margery Tabankin, ” ties the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and King’s marches to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa with a reminder that slavery once existed in the United States. For me, it represents the essence of the social justice message that has always been a part of Peter, Paul and Mary. It is a hopeful song, envisioning a future when all people will know freedom. Yet it also unapologetically bares truths that might be painful to some. It provides a sense of history – where we’ve been to help lead us where we’re going. And its lyrics draw on recognizable word icons to tie the listener into past times, into now and into the future. And, while it is a song written against apartheid, it can be sung for any social justice song. The lyrics are:
Brother Martin was walkin’ with me,
And every step I heard liberty.
Tho he’s fallin’, come a million behind!
Glory, Hallelujah, gonna make it this time!
No easy walk to freedom,
No easy walk to freedom,
Keep on walkin’ and we shall be free,
That’s how we’re gonna make history.
Across the ocean, the blood’s running warm,
I, I hear it coming, there’s a thunderin’ storm
Just like we lived it, you know that it’s true,
Nelson Mandela, now we’re walkin’ with you!
In our land, not so long ago,
We lived the struggle, and that’s how we know
Slavery abolished, comin’ freedom’s call
Keep on walking and apartheid will fall!
Oh, bread for the body, there’s got to be
But a soul will die without liberty
Pray for the day when the struggle is past!
Freedom for all! Free at last! Free at last!
No easy walk to freedom,
No easy walk to freedom,
Keep on walkin’ and we shall be free,
That’s how we’re gonna make history.
You and me!
In many ways, the song spans the music and message of the trio, referencing the March on Washington, coming into contemporary struggle for freedom of the 1980s and envisioning a future where everyone is free at last.
In the years since, their songs and their activism have protested the exploitation of laborers, raised awareness about homelessness issues, lamented “the troubles” in Ireland, championed many environmental concerns, advocated for peace in the Middle East, and opposed U.S. military actions around the globe, including the war in Iraq.
In an essay in the trio’s 2003 retrospective collection, author David Halberstam describes the group as “strolling players, as it were, strolling across the entire national landscape for three generations.”
The group still performs, though Travers’ health has limited the number of concerts as she recovered first from leukemia and then back surgery, and has scheduled a fall tour that includes a December 2008 performance at Carnegie Hall. The last new recording was 2003’s, In These Times, though compilations have been released since then, most notably 2003’s four-cd retrospective, Carry It On.
In an article within that retrospective collection, journalist Barry Alfonso describes the trio’s ability to connect their music through popular culture: “They helped to bring a sense of conscience to American mass culture in an all but unprecedented way. … Calling for justice amidst the romantic fluff of the (radio) airwaves was – and remains – nothing less than a radical act.”
It was a radical act whose activism began on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963. In Alfonso’s article, Travers recalls that day:
“We were up on the steps with Lincoln at our back. … And I remember when we were singing feeling almost an epiphany … this was the first time I’d ever seen that many people, and they were all hoping for social change and for something good. It was probably the most pivotal moment of my life…”
That moment has informed the group and their music through five decades as they continue to share songs about justice and live into their message through personal activism. The continuing success and the longevity of Peter, Paul and Mary is not about nostalgia. It’s about social justice – enduring commitment to freedom and fairness and non-violence not just in one pivotal moment but through a lifetime of moments, through decades of concern, to call both attention and hope to people who are oppressed throughout the world.
That is why the message and the music of Peter, Paul and Mary carry on.
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Warner Bros. Records, Inc. 2003. Compact disk collection.
Court, John. Liner notes. See What Tomorrow Brings. Burbank: Warner Bros. Records, Inc.
1965. LP recording.
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Warner Bros. Records, Inc. 2003. Compact disk collection.
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Peter, Paul and Mary. “No Easy Walk to Freedom.” No Easy Walk to Freedom. Los Angeles:
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Posted by karen at 6:56 PM