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Where have all the flowers gone? - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
Where have all the flowers gone?
lnr asks what's the oldest record we own. Mine, as far as I can ascertain, is Peter, Paul & Mary's eponymous debut album (1962).

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?
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Comments
vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: November 2nd, 2004 01:46 am (UTC) (Link)

on music

That piece you have quoted reminds me forcibly of some of the introduction to that classic San Francisco hippy cookbook, Laurel's Kitchen - but PP&M were also classic SF hippies, too....

Having gone out with/stayed in with someone closely involved with that era of the music biz for a while in my mis-spent youth I won't comment on PP&M, but your questions are (as always) interesting.

Evangelically optimistic about music.... elated by, yes; optimistic about other things, as a result of listening to/participating in, yes; evangelically optimistic about: I'm a bit confused.

Evangelical: about what? Or to accomplish what? Or to preach to whom?

As a child influenced directly by the race arguments of my elders, growing up in a series of all kinds of mixed-race environments (I won't call them "communities", that's too homogenous a concept for what I grew up with), I did believe, as a child, that certain kinds of music could help provide part of the background of unity which social movements needed. My parents felt very strongly that Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams were all authentic voices of the agricultural depression of the Twenties, followed by the better-known Great Depression of the Thirties; they believed that the dynamism provided by Roosevelt helped to fuel biracial social dynamism that they, in their idealistic days, believed was the right way forward. They were also very keen collectors of New orleans and Chicago-based jazz, which was part of their social consciousness and their direct experience: Bunk Johnson played at my great-aunt's wedding reception. My folks went to rent parties on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s, and my dad remembers people checking their weapons at the door, just like the Bessie Smith song says (Gimme A Pigfoot: "Check yo' razors, and yo' guns, we're here to raise the rent and have some fun", IIRC).

But do I think music has evangelic strength? Yes, up to a point; but not in terms of, say, turning back a tide of mediocrity, which, like the poor, is always with us.

The commentary on PP&M has to be placed in its context: this was Camelot Time, JFK was still alive and people didn't know his private failings, and the writers were contrasting PP&M with, say, Pat Boone on the one hand and Pete Seeger on the other. They sure weren't taking into account "jig music" or Charlie Parker or even Bill Hailey and the Comets - but the writers were in The Business, writing for a major label, and weren't about to muddy the waters (you should excuse the reference).

It is possible to find the same purple-prose style in write-ups of Joan Baez's early albums, Theo Bikel's, Cynthia Goodings's, Dick Weissman's, and those by the Byrds, and the Soviet Red Army Chorus. But not all of them were quite so starry-eyed.

Good music always lifts me into optimism because it is good and I am of that annoying group of people who believe that Goodness is palpable and influential and objectively Real - we've had that discussion before!

Can I line up "Teenaged Dreams" against "Total pulchra es" against "Embryonic Journey" against "Waiting for a Train" against the goose music I hear right now on R4? I can't, but it all makes me feel optimistic.

Ergo, all good music is inherently evangelical.
keirf From: keirf Date: November 2nd, 2004 02:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Together we should sing it,
It's just a children's song.
And if you do not know the words...
... You'd better learn them.
acronym From: acronym Date: November 2nd, 2004 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Incidentally, Peter, Paul and Mary *have* to be admitted to Rock Valhalla for the following alone:


Band seeks bassist.
Must be into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary.
No chops.

  -- posted by Black Francis in a Boston music shop; the ad that recruited Kim Deal to the then-Pixies-in-Panoply...
anat0010 From: anat0010 Date: November 2nd, 2004 05:20 am (UTC) (Link)
You write so damn well. Stop it. It shows me up.
Seriously, you were born to write, that was a beatufiul description of childhood.
*wipes away a tear.
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