The balancing act between the two extremes of folk music in the 1960s was no more carefully managed than in the output of Peter, Paul & Mary. Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were struggling with solo careers (singing, standup comedy and acting, respectively) before a talent manager pulled them together to try a group act. Their personal chemistry and cohesive harmony was instant. In 1962 they signed with Warner Bros. and had their first hit songs, Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
But the following year was even more successful with Top Ten hits “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (a Yarrow composition), and two Dylan songs, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The popularity of “Blowin'”, together with the exposure given him by the Joan Baez tour, secured Dylan’s place as the “Guthrie” for the next generation – a prophet in search of peace and a poet seeking justice.
During the next couple years, PP&M were staple figures at the Newport Folk Festival and at civil rights rallies in America. When King marched on Washington, D.C. in August, 1963, they joined Joan Baez and others on the platform with the civil rights leader.
The mid-1960s were the height of the folk movement in America and the popularity of Peter, Paul and Mary. Together with the protest songs, they also found success with pop-folk songs such as “For Lovin’ Me” by Gordon Lightfoot in 1965 and John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” in 1969.
In spite of the popular success of their pop-folk songs, they always attempted to maintain the delicate balance between entertainment and social activism. Never a part of the rock movement, their 1967 hit “I Dig Rock ‘n Roll Music” was a tongue-in-cheek jab at the meaningless lyrics and missed opportunities of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I dig Rock and Roll music, I could really get it on in that scene.
I think I could say somethin, ‘if you know what I mean
But if I really say it, the radio won’t play it
Unless I lay it between the lines!”
The song, which musically and vocally parodied The Mamas and the Papas, Donovan, and The Beatles, was co-written by Paul Stookey; it was the final flag for the folk movement of the 1960s. The interests of mainstream American youth, and therefore, the media, had shifted from folk music based on philosophic convictions to rock and pop-rock where the experiential emotions were the goal. Activism was out; material success, complacency and drug experimentation was in.
Following moderately successful solo careers in the 1970s, Peter, Paul and Mary reunited in 1978 for the aptly titled album, Reunion. During the decades of the eighties and nineties, the group recorded and performed on a steady basis, still speaking and singing out on behalf of those oppressed in places like El Salvador and South Africa and the plight of the Jews in the Russia.
Peter, Paul, and Mary with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”