STEVE BOUSER: Peter, Paul and Mary Struck Quite a Chord
On an autum afternoon in 1963, I was driving through a seedy Skid Row section of downtown Springfield, Mo., when the taxi ahead abruptly stopped.
My annoyance turned to disbelief when the cab doors opened and two people jumped out. Since I was a huge fan of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, I recognized them instantly. It was Paul Stookey and Mary Travers -- right there in River City!
They disappeared into a bar, leaving the taxi blocking traffic. Horns blared. Then the two reappeared, dragging a protesting patron out of the bar. It was an inebriated Peter Yarrow! They hustled him into the cab, which roared off to some undisclosed location, where Paul and Mary presumably would attempt to sober Peter up for their concert that evening at Southwest Missouri State College, where I was a freshman.
That memory and others rushed back when I heard that Mary Travers had died.
Back in '63, when she was a willowy, long-haired blonde in her 20s, I was an obsessive PP&M devotee and had been since they first burst onto the music scene a year or two earlier. I had listened to their premiere album so often that I wore out the grooves and had to buy another copy.
I knew practically every word, every harmony, every chord progression by heart. In the Army, where I had just served three years, I had often annoyed fellow GIs by sitting in the barracks and haltingly strumming and humming all those first dozen unforgettable songs. "Lemon Tree." "Five Hundred Miles." "If I Had a Hammer." "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
On the night after my Skid Row encounter, I sat near the front of the old SMS field house, drinking it in as Peter, Paul and Mary sang all of those songs flawlessly -- and, as near as I could tell, soberly.
At the end, as the lights dimmed and the gym fell hushed, they performed a new song by a young guy I had never heard of. His name was Bob Dylan. The song, which can never be forgotten by any of us who heard it on that lovely and innocent night just weeks before the JFK assassination, was "Blowin' in the Wind."
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you will call him a man? . . .
Later, I stood shy and tongue-tied at the stage door and got all three performers to autograph a poster I had stolen from the student union. Framed on my dorm wall, it became my most prized possession. Damned if I know what ever happened to it.
Peter, Paul and Mary were never what you could call authentic folk singers. Promoter Albert Grossman had brought them together in 1961 and shaped their image and introduced them in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Vil-lage. They may not have sprung from the soil like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, but no one could match them for sheer musical virtuosity.
Go back and listen to classics like "Man of Constant Sorrow." Or "A'soalin'." Or "Polly Von." Or the Dylan masterpiece "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Marvel at the magically intricate guitar arpeggios. Allow the perfect three-part harmonies to sweep over you. Let Mary's sweet, strong, bell-clear alto bring tears to your eyes in "The Cruel War."
It didn't last long. Nothing that near-perfect ever can. The music lost its freshness as America went off the deep end during the dizzy, disastrous 1960s. PP&M's only No. 1 hit was 1969's decidedly un-folkish "Leavin' on a Jet Plane." The trio's private lives didn't always go well, either. There was that sex-charge thing with Peter. Mary went through three divorces.
Peter, Paul and Mary broke up in 1970. Then, in 1978, they began some reunion performances -- including one in Charlotte in 1992, which my wife, Brenda, treated me to. I loved it, though the audience was mostly made up of middle-aged nostalgia-seekers instead of bright-eyed college students.
To this day, sometimes, when I'm alone, I'll tune my battered Bruno Ventura guitar and have a go at some of the cherished PP&M songs, lost in memories of a vanished youth. I did it again the other night. But as I tried "Blowin' in the Wind" and thought about poor Mary Travers, brought low by leukemia at 72, one line choked me up.
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand? ...
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com
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