When I was in college back in the 1960s, there was usually a Peter, Paul, and Mary album playing in the student lounge. So it was wonderful last night to relive that whole era during a PBS documentary about the group: Peter, Paul, and Mary Carry it On.
Of course I got weepy over “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And there were songs I’d forgotten, like “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” which the modern dance troupe at my Brooklyn college performed back in the 1960s.
There was much praise for the group during last night’s special (and no mention of Peter Yarrow’s three months in jail for taking “liberties” with a 14-year-old girl–he was pardoned by President Carter). Much was made of their social advocacy and their contributions to the Civil Rights and peace movements of the 1960s.
What shone through the whole documentary, though, was how damned good they were. Somehow, even at the height of their fame, their fans allowed them to branch out and experiment.
I remember how shaken some of my friends were when Bob Dylan began to move beyond the boundaries of protest music. Nothing like that happened (as far as I know) to people who were fans of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Quite the opposite: Fans loved it when the group recorded non-protest songs like “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.”
During last night’s special I thought the least successful songs were those with ponderous, heavy messages. I don’t care much for “The Wedding Song” and “The Great Mandela.”
Their best songs touched listeners deeply without hammering any lesson at all. I remember listening to the great WNEW-FM station in New York one Sunday night when Zacherley (uncharacteristically, for him) told listeners to round up their fathers for the next song: Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Day Is Done”–a father speaking to a little boy who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on out there.
[I should explain who Zacherley was and why that song was such a shock, but I can't. You had to be there. Sorry.]
Yes, you had to be there. Perhaps the most wonderful truth that the group taught us was that people–even enormously gifted people like Peter, Paul, and Mary–can’t be put into a box. Especially enormously gifted people. We had to be willing to go down new roads with the group as they pushed their talent as far as it would go.
There’s a myth floating around that we’re supposed to be a) contented and b) consistent. There’s something terribly wrong if we experience an irrepressible longing to do and be something different.
I’m not at all saying that we should just pack up and take off when the mood strikes us. There’s something to be said for commitment and self-discipline. But I am saying that we should be more open to the yearnings and restlessness that occasionally strike every human soul. We need to create a safe inner space for exploring the new life that sometimes bubbles up with enticements and temptations. Maybe there’s a new song waiting to be sung, and we’re the ones chosen to sing it.