Accessibility links

Breaking News

Peter, Paul & Mary Still Touch Hearts After a Half-Century on Stage


It's been 46 years since three folk singers first took the stage together at the Bitter End coffee house in New York City's Greenwich Village. Soon the world would know the trio on a first-name basis as Peter, Paul & Mary. Their music, with its signature vocal harmonies, endured long after public tastes switched to rock-'n'-roll. And their continuing popularity helped keep folk music alive and on the radio.

To the amazement of their millions of fans, Peter Yarrow, 68; Noel "Paul" Stookey, 69; and Mary Travers, 70, still perform together more than 30 times a year. They delight audiences with their classics like "If I Had a Hammer." They enchant children with pixie like tunes like "Puff the Magic Dragon" and the newer "Critter" song.

And they keep their message relevant with songs attuned to social issues like homelessness, nuclear disarmament, apartheid, and pleas for peace, with songs like "Of This World," in which Paul and the audience join in singing, "I can ease the suffering of this world with my head, my heart, and my hands."

Before they became an ensemble, Mary Travers was the most established of the trio. She waited tables in New York's Greenwich Village, performed with a group that included the legendary Pete Seeger, and was a regular at concerts in Manhattan's Washington Square. Paul Stookey, who had gone to New York from Michigan hoping for a career as a stand-up comedian, joined her to form a coffee-house act.

But friends said something was missing from the mix of Mary's throaty mezzo-soprano and Paul's bouncy baritone. Along came tenor Peter Yarrow, a graduate in psychology from Cornell University, who had performed solo at the Newport Folk Festival. Soon the three politically liberal musical chums were rehearsing at Mary's walk-up apartment in the Village, which was a crucible of artistic creativity. They performed at clubs, and, with help from Pete Seeger and an obscure songwriter named Bob Dylan, prepared their first album. Featuring songs like, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" it was an instant classic.

Peter, Paul, and Mary set out on an odyssey of almost nightly performances in small clubs like San Francisco's Hungry i and were soon performing in bigger and bigger auditoriums. Their albums sold -- and still sell -- millions of copies, but Peter Yarrow says making commercial hits is not what P, P, and M are about. "I think that if Peter, Paul, and Mary wanted to make the commitment to go out and make hits that we could compete in that way," he says. "But we don't want to. We don't need to."

Paul Stookey likes to call Peter, Paul & Mary's appearances a "sharing" rather than a performance. He says, "To be seconded by an audience's applause in the middle of a line, because you know that they are at that emotional threshold themselves -- that's a very special time for us."

In 1970, Peter, Paul, and Mary amicably went their separate ways to pursue solo careers. Paul, especially, wanted to cement his individual persona as a Christian singer under his full name: Noel Paul Stookey. And he scored a hit with "The Wedding Song," which has become a standard at many Americans' weddings ever since.

Mary released five solo albums, with lukewarm response. Peter, who briefly served jail time on a morals charge involving a 14-year-old girl (an offense for which President Jimmy Carter would later grant him a full pardon) organized demonstrations, fund-raisers, and what were called teach-ins. In 1978 he prevailed upon Paul and Mary to rejoin him for the Survival Sunday anti-nuclear benefit concert in Los Angeles. A reunion tour followed, and the melodic singers have performed together -- as well as separately -- ever since.

"We have touched each other for our forever," Mary Travers has said. "We are a part of each other, always. Singing is our way of touching each other and saying, 'If I never see you again, you are a part of me.'" "And," added Paul, "we feel that way with the audience, too."

Peter Yarrow is the patient and meticulous worker and most prolific songwriter of the trio; Paul Stookey, the relaxed jokester who makes funny faces and noises; and Mary Travers, the brash bridge between the two. They use no lasers, no exploding sets, no screeching amplification in their shows, just their crisp voices and Peter and Paul's acoustic guitars.

And as Peter points out, P, P, and M together and separately have strong presences on the Internet, not just to sell albums, but also to fight homelessness and support other issues. "One of the most important themes of discovery is the right, the privilege, of believing in what you believe in because you really believe in it yourselves," he says. "There is not the necessity of waving the flag of a movement or a nation or an idea. We are connected."

Three years ago, the music world was rocked by news that Mary Travers had leukemia. She underwent a bone-marrow transplant and recuperated sufficiently to rejoin Peter and Paul on the road. To this day, their idealism shines through their exuberant performances in English, occasional foreign languages, and the universal language of music. Audiences of all ages come not only to listen, but especially to sing along.
Editor's Note: Audio report linked above is enriched with musical excerpts

Previous American Profiles