Wednesday October 20, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Peter, Paul and Mary
On this Day:
In 1962, Peter, Paul and Mary’s debut folk album “Peter, Paul and Mary” reached No. 1 on US album charts.
Peter, Paul and Mary were an American folk group formed in New York City in 1961, during the American folk music revival phenomenon. The trio was composed of tenor Peter Yarrow, baritone Noel Paul Stookey and contralto Mary Travers. The group’s repertoire included songs written by Yarrow and Stookey, early songs by Bob Dylan, as well as covers of other folk musicians. They were enormously successful in the early and mid 1960s, with their debut album topping the charts for weeks, and helped popularize the folk music revival. After the death of Travers in 2009, Yarrow and Stookey continued to perform as a duo under their individual names.
Mary Travers said she was influenced by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers. In the documentary Peter, Paul & Mary: Carry It On — A Musical Legacy, members of the Weavers discuss how Peter, Paul and Mary took over the torch of the social commentary of folk music in the 1960s.
The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. Peter, Paul and Mary received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.
Manager Albert Grossman created Peter, Paul and Mary in 1961, after auditioning several singers in the New York folk scene, including Dave Van Ronk, who was rejected as too idiosyncratic and uncommercial, and Carolyn Hester. After rehearsing Yarrow, Stookey and Travers out of town in Boston and Miami, Grossman booked them into The Bitter End, a coffee house, nightclub and popular folk music venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
The group recorded their debut album, Peter, Paul and Mary, and it was released by Warner Bros. the following year. It included “Lemon Tree”, “500 Miles”, and the Pete Seeger hit tunes “If I Had a Hammer” (subtitled “The Hammer Song”) and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The album was listed in the Billboard Magazine Top Ten for 10 months, including seven weeks in the No. 1 position. It remained a main catalog-seller for decades to come, eventually selling over two million copies, earning double platinum certification from the RIAA in the United States alone.
In 1963 the group released “Puff, the Magic Dragon”, with music by Yarrow and words based on a poem that had been written by a fellow student at Cornell, Leonard Lipton. Despite rumors that the song refers to drugs, it is actually about the lost innocence of childhood. That same year, they appeared as the “mystery guest” on the CBS TV game show What’s My Line? Dorothy Kilgallen correctly guessed their identity.
That year the group performed “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, best remembered for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind” was one of their biggest hit singles. They also sang other Dylan songs, such as “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, and “When the Ship Comes In”. Their success with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” helped Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album rise into the top 30; it had been released four months earlier.
In December 1969 “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, written by the group’s friend John Denver, became their only No. 1 single (as well as their final top 40 pop hit) and the group’s sixth million-selling gold single. The track first appeared on their million-selling platinum certified Album 1700 in 1967 (which also contained their No. 9 hit “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”). After Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary, the group recorded “Eugene McCarthy For President (If You Love Your Country)” endorsing McCarthy, which was released without a record label. “Day Is Done”, a No. 21 hit in June 1969 from the trio’s Grammy Award-winning album Peter, Paul and Mommy, was the last Hot 100 hit the trio recorded.
The trio broke up in 1970 to pursue solo careers. Also that year, Yarrow was convicted of making sexual advances toward a 14-year-old girl. Years later, he received a presidential pardon from Jimmy Carter.
During 1971 and 1972 Warner released a debut solo album, with the same style cover, by each member of the group. Travers did concerts and lectures across the United States. She also produced, wrote, and starred in a BBC-TV series. Stookey formed a Christian music group, the Body Works Band, and wrote “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)” for Yarrow’s marriage to Marybeth McCarthy, the niece of Eugene McCarthy. Britain’s Petula Clark also recorded a version of the song, which in 1973 charted strongly in the UK, Australia and others. Yarrow co-wrote and produced Mary MacGregor’s Torn Between Two Lovers (No. 1, 1977) and earned an Emmy for three animated TV specials based on “Puff the Magic Dragon”.
While the group was de facto broken up and touring separately, it still managed to come together for a series of reunions before officially coming back together again. In 1972, the trio reunited for Together for McGovern, a concert at Madison Square Garden to support George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and again in 1978 for a concert to protest nuclear energy. This concert was followed by a 1978 summer reunion tour. Included was a September 3 evening performance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
A reunion album, Reunion, was released by Warner in 1978. In Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), Robert Christgau said the group’s decision to cover Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” as a “rinky-dink reggae like these three geezers means you’ve been middle-aged and liberal since you were fifteen.”
The 1978 summer tour was so popular that the group decided to reunite more or less permanently in 1981. They continued to record albums and tour, playing around 45 shows a year, until Travers’s 2009 death. The trio was accompanied in concert by double-bassist Dick Kniss (who had been their bassist on their studio recordings and 1960s tours) and, starting in 1990, by multi-instrumentalist Paul Prestopino.
The trio received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience award on September 1, 1990.
In 2004, Travers was diagnosed with leukemia, leading to the cancellation of that year’s remaining tour dates. She received a bone marrow transplant. She and the rest of the trio resumed their tour on December 9, 2005, with a holiday performance at Carnegie Hall.
The trio canceled several dates of their summer 2007 tour, as Travers had to undergo a second surgery. She was unable to perform on the trio’s tour in mid-2009 because of the effects of leukemia, but Yarrow and Stookey performed the scheduled dates as a duo, calling the show “Peter & Paul Celebrate Mary and 5 Decades of Friendship”.
On September 16, 2009, Travers died at age 72, of complications from chemotherapy, following treatment for leukemia. It was the same year Peter, Paul and Mary were inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
What’s Puff the Magic Dragons favorite snack? Fire crackers…
Second, a Song:
“Puff, the Magic Dragon” (or just “Puff”) is a song written by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary from a poem by Leonard Lipton. It was made popular by Yarrow’s group in a 1962 recording released in January 1963.
Lipton wrote a poem about a dragon in 1959, and when Yarrow found it, he wrote the lyrics to “Puff” based on the poem. After the song was released, Yarrow searched for Lipton to give him credit for the song.
The lyrics for “Puff, the Magic Dragon” are based on a 1959 poem by Leonard Lipton, then a 19-year-old Cornell University student. Lipton was inspired by an Ogden Nash poem titled “Custard the Dragon”, about a “realio, trulio little pet dragon”.
The lyrics tell a story of the ageless dragon Puff and his playmate, Jackie Paper, a little boy who grows up and loses interest in the imaginary adventures of childhood and leaves Puff to be with himself. The story of the song takes place “by the sea” in the fictional land of “Honah Lee”.
Lipton was friends with Yarrow’s housemate when they were all students at Cornell. He used Yarrow’s typewriter to get the poem out of his head. He then forgot about it until years later, when a friend called and told him Yarrow was looking for him, to give him credit for the lyrics. On making contact, Yarrow gave Lipton half the songwriting credit, and he still gets royalties from the song.
Yarrow now sings the line “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys” as “A dragon lives forever, but not so girls and boys”, to be fair to boys and girls. The original poem also had a stanza that was not incorporated into the song. In it, Puff found another child and played with him after returning. Neither Yarrow nor Lipton remembers the verse in any detail, and the paper that was left in Yarrow’s typewriter in 1958 has since been lost.
In 1961, Peter Yarrow joined Paul Stookey and Mary Travers to form Peter, Paul and Mary. The group incorporated the song into their live performances before recording it in 1962. The trio’s 1962 recording of “Puff the Magic Dragon” entered the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 charts on March 30, 1963, and peaked at number two, kept out of the top spot by “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March. It topped Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts. It also reached number ten on Billboard’s R&B chart. In Canada, the song reached number four in April 1963 (per Wikipedia).
Thought for the Day:
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky
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