As a child I had a taped copy of a later album of theirs, In the Wind, and I played the tape until it nearly wore out. I'd listen to it on my headphones in bed, and Peter, Paul & Mary rocked me to sleep. Some of the songs made little sense to me, their words were just a different kind of music; others unfailingly made me feel a sweet but shivery kind of feeling that I couldn't identify -- it was like sadness, but it didn't make me sad. All those times I nearly cried for Polly Von, shot dead by her lover ("she'd her apron wrapped about her, and he took her for a swan"). I learned the words and tunes to a handful of American folk classics, including a few tracks by a certain B. Dylan whose music I wouldn't really encounter on its own terms until years later; but I also learned that specific record, every scratch and hiss faithfully transferred to the tape. When my parents bought me the CD a few years ago I was thrown quite off-balance by the lack of a skip in the first verse of Freight Train.
I rescued Peter, Paul & Mary's debut album from Oxfam earlier this year. It's more raw than In the Wind, though you might not think it to hear some of the perfect three-part harmonies; but there's a newness, a freshness, an openness that's been smoothed away by time of the later album. These songs are slighter, but they hit harder; the sound is less layered, and the words are sung as if they are new. And the record itself is scratched, all crackles and pops; it's been played again and again by somebody, perhaps somebody who was sung to sleep by 500 Miles and Sorrow as I was by All My Trials and Blowin' in the Wind.
No, I can't even pretend to be objective about this music. And nor, it appears, can the author of the sleevenotes:
Peter, Paul and Mary sing folk music. In your hands you hold their first album. But to be more accurate, you hold a bouquet of song still fresh as earth, and strong with the perfume of sincerity. For Peter, Paul and Mary sing! ...
There is nothing apologetic about their work. No ineptitude disguised as charm. No uninspired professionalism passed off as authenticity. Whatever they have thus far undertaken, Peter, Paul and Mary have done well, and with flair. And, obviously, with their whole hearts. The temptation is to run on in a riot of superlatives. Probably, you're either reading this instead of listening, or else reading and trying to listen at the same time. Either way, it's a mistake. The Truth is on the record. It deserves your exclusive attention. No dancing, please. Just look at their faces, listen to their songs, and hope that you have a chance to hear (and see) them in person.
These dynamic youngsters have been "together" almost a year now (by spring '62, when this is being written), and each day seems to bring new definition to that word ... "together". The trio has elsewhere been described, visually, as "Two bearded prophets of the folk idiom in league with a bright, young blonde-and-a-half." And vocally, as "An angel, and two cellos playing guitars". Beyond such imagery, such facts as birthplaces, hobbies, ages, and last names are unimportant here. Their identities as artists, both individually and collectively, are emphatically established on the record inside. By way of rounding out the biography, let's just add that what they do in their spare time is sing.
More important than biography, there seems to be something optimistic, something encouraging about this whole musical experience. Peter, Paul and Mary's first album is bright with enthusiasm. No gimmicks. There is just something Good about it all. Good in the sense of Virtue, that is. And the news that something this Good can be as popular as this is can fill you with a new kind of optimism. Maybe everything's going to be all right. Maybe mediocrity has had it. Maybe hysteria is on the way out. One thing is for sure in any case: Honesty is back. Tell your neighbor.
Emphasis, textual and moral, is the author's own. Was all this purple-prosed optimism misplaced? Did three smoothly-harmonising folk singers really turn back the tides of mediocrity, even for a moment? How sickeningly easy it is to maintain a detached smirk in the face of this overflowing, wide-eyed wonder. But when were you last this evangelically optimistic about music? About any music?