Music News


Quick--who did more for rock 'n' roll, Martha and the Vandellas or Peter, Paul and Mary?

Your first instinct is to go with the girls from Detroit. Martha and the Vandellas' biggest hits--"Heat Wave," "Dancing in the Street" and "Nowhere to Run"--were driven by heart-pounding rhythms and what sounded like a zillion tambourines. In stark contrast, Peter, Paul and Mary's biggest hits, "Leaving on a Jet Plane," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind," didn't even have drums on them.

Yet Martha and the Vandellas were essentially an interchangeable cog in Motown's unstoppable hit factory. This is proven by the fact that there were no fewer than six different Vandellas between 1963 and 1971. Martha and company were fleshing out a vision written, produced, groomed and choreographed by a team of other people. Martha's input, besides her great, piercing voice, was minimal.

Peter, Paul and Mary, however, charted their own destiny. The trio took the political activism of the Weavers and Woody Guthrie and delivered it to the fledgling rock generation in an intimate package. Without its patronage of the early Dylan songbook, who knows how much longer the former Robert Zimmerman would've continued at a coffee-house level instead of enjoying mass acceptance almost overnight?

In doing these things, Peter, Paul and Mary accelerated the notion that pop music could have a message beyond "do the Hully Gully." Today, people think of "Dancing in the Street" as a political song since it was unofficially an anthem of the civil rights marches. But it wasn't Martha and the Vandellas who participated in the march from Selma singing "Blowin' in the Wind" through a bullhorn while standing on a platform made up of empty coffins. It was Peter, Paul and Mary. If Motown was "The Sound of Young America," then Peter, Paul and Mary were its conscience for those early years in the Sixties.

Yet last year, Martha and God-knows-which Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their efforts, while Peter, Paul and Mary have probably never even been considered.

No one's puzzled more by this exclusion than Noel (Paul) Stookey, the middle partner in this seminal folk trio for 36 years. Now ready to embark on a tour behind the group's 17th album, Lifelines, Stookey speaks matter-of-factly about the group's past and present achievements via telephone from his Boston home.

"It's always been a curious thing to me how Peter, Paul and Mary live outside the circle of rock 'n' roll fame," he marvels. "We're seldom included when they do a rehash of the Sixties. And yet we had three albums in the Top 5 in 1963. It's not like it's sour grapes, it's just curiosity--a kind of sense that we don't belong. Like folk is too big a category to cram into rock 'n' roll."

In 1960, Stookey was a singer and part-time standup comedian, working the Greenwich Village folk circuit. After some hesitation, he gave up his lucrative solo gig to team up with Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow at the behest of manager Albert Grossman, one of rock's most colorful and enigmatic figures. Grossman, who would later go on to steer the careers of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Band, saw a need in folk music that wasn't being fulfilled, despite the growing popularity of folk acts like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters.

"The Kingston Trio were about having a good time, singing 'Scotch and Soda,'" Stookey recalls. "When we began to sing, we brought an individual kind of concern for the world around us. And we drew on those songs that had that as a perspective."

The group's first single in 1962 addressed a strong concern for why love was like a "Lemon Tree." The trio followed it up with a rousing cover of the Weavers' "If I Had a Hammer." Unknowingly, they were providing Trini Lopez with his future Live at PJ's set lists. They nipped that trend in the bud with their next hit, "Puff the Magic Dragon," which was written by Peter Yarrow and his college roommate three years earlier. If there is one reason that PP&M are today considered little more than an oldies act that specializes in campfire songs, that reason is Puff.

Though "Puff" was prevented from reaching No. 1 by Jimmy Soul's offensive paean to ugly women "If You Wanna Be Happy," PP&M could console themselves with the knowledge that Soul was never invited to the White House to sing with the commander in chief. While President Kennedy tried getting into the act by singing "Puff," then-vice president Lyndon Johnson wanted to get closer to the group in other ways. Stookey jokes about LBJ "purportedly putting a move on Mary," but refers any further questions to Ms. Travers herself.

Ironically, "Puff," the tender story of "boy-meets-dragon, boy-outgrows-dragon, dragon-becomes-suicidal," incurred the wrath of a later vice president of the United States. Spiro Agnew led the charge against rock songs with hidden messages and insisted "Puff the Magic Dragon" was a drug song.

It was on the trio's third album that PP&M gave Dylan his first substantial royalty check by covering both "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

Stookey qualifies that statement. "It's funny you would say 'covered'; we introduced Dylan. Because while he was really happening at a coffee-house level, we were really happening at a concert and radio level." Since PP&M had the national hits with those songs, they are as much Peter, Paul and Mary's as they are Dylan's. Soon they became everybody's, with cover versions of "Don't Think Twice" ranging from the Wonder Who (actually the Four Seasons with Frankie Valli singing like Betty Boop) to Lawrence Welk's terminally cheerful version on which every "babe" is accompanied by a harpsichord stab.

It's hard to even remember hearing a song like "Blowin' in the Wind" for the first time, as if it's already been around for hundreds of years. "Frankly, I feel that Albert and Peter heard that song and really understood how it would translate across generations much better than I did," admits Stookey. "Mary said, 'If this song were to be put in a time capsule and sent to the year 600 in Greece, if they were to read those questions, they'd say, "Yeah, those are good questions."' I like the fact that 'the answer is blowing in the wind' is not so vague as it is obtainable. It's just a question of whether or not we have ears to hear it."

Ears and tastes began a-changin' in 1965, and Dylan would have a lot to do with it. As the story goes, when Dylan performed two electric songs at that year's Newport Folk Festival, he was booed off the stage. He returned to deliver a scathing acoustic version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," basically a fuck-you to the whole folk movement he rode in on.

Stookey begs to differ. "Dylan was like the James Dean of Newport. He could've come on with a trombone and we would've loved him. There wasn't any yelling during the first two tunes, but he'd only rehearsed two tunes, and then he walked offstage and he didn't come back. That's when the booing started.

"Backstage there was a lot going on between Pete Seeger's objection that there should be no electric music and Dylan's not planning well," Stookey continues. "As lucid as Dylan is in his lyrics, and as communicative as he is on so many subliminal levels, he is reluctant to be that up-front on a one-to-one basis. Certainly at Newport that year, he did not communicate well." Peter Yarrow was on the board of directors with Pete Seeger and tried keeping peace backstage in an official capacity. Allegedly, Yarrow handed Dylan the acoustic and demanded he apologize to the crowd. Dylan's grandstanding tactics made many of the traditional participants at the Newport Festival, including PP&M, seem like the stodgy old guard in comparison. By the end of that year, people only seemed interested in discussing "folk rock."

Peter, Paul and Mary's albums continued selling respectably, but the group didn't place a single in the Top 40 for two and a half years. When they finally did in September of 1967, it was "I Dig Rock 'n' Roll Music," which some took to be a reactionary dig at the rock acts who displaced their brand of traditional folk from the pop charts. The message coming across seemed to be, It's only rock 'n' roll, but we don't really care for it all that much.

First the trio gets the jump on Frank Zappa in declaring the Beatles are only in it for the money ("They've got a word 'Love' to sell you"). Then they give the Mamas and the Papas a backhanded compliment ("They have a good thing going when the words don't get in the way"). Finally, Donovan is lampooned as cosmically stupid (well, no argument there). While Stookey's vocal impressions of these acts are okay, it's his incessant use of words like "dig," "groovy" and "get it on that scene" that make Stookey and company sound like bad undercover narcotic agents on a very special episode of The Mod Squad.

"I'm as ambivalent now as I was when I pulled the song together," says Stookey about the vague Top 10 hit he wrote. "I was always the one in the group pushing the envelope. What I was looking for was a platform that resembled rock 'n' roll, which I love to do, and one which gave us the opportunity to send up our friends." Did their good friends in the Mamas and the Papas really have words that got in their way? "I really have to confess that I was just looking for rhymes," Stookey sheepishly admits.

One can also take exception to that line "If I really say it, the radio won't play it"--didn't Barry McGuire score a No. 1 hit two years before that had bodies floating in the Jordan River? Didn't Peter, Paul and Mary's labelmates at Warner Bros., the Association, just score a No. 1 hit that summer with a song that asked "Who's bending down to give me a rainbow?" Certainly you could sneak anything across those snoozing AM censors, couldn't you?

"The censorship of radio was omnipresent, the freedom of alternative stations just wasn't there," Stookey says. "If I talked about things that were happening in society, like dope smoking or the Vietnam War, up-front, it would never be broadcast."

Evidently, the boob tube was even more anal. Earlier in the Sixties, the group boycotted ABC-TV's folk-music hour Hootenanny until the show lifted its ban on Pete Seeger, still blacklisted from the Fifties. "Which they never did," says Stookey. "When PP&M wanted to sing 'Monday Morning' on the Bell Telephone Hour, a song that spoke of a woman turning around in bed to the man she just wed, they didn't want that on television, either. It didn't matter that the man and woman were married. We walked off the show."

Although PP&M named its 1967 long player after its catalogue number, Album 1700, the offering was anything but mere product--it was the trio's best-ever effort. The album contained a song which addressed the horrors of the then-escalating Vietnam War, "The Great Mandala," which turns up again on the latest PP&M album and provides one of the best moments. Album 1700 also had "Too Much of Nothing," at the time one of Dylan's "basement tapes," and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (penned by John Denver), which would become a No. 1 hit two years later.

Just as it was topping the charts, the group split up. In an unfortunate bit of timing, the trio received a Grammy for its first children's album, Peter, Paul and Mommy, in March 1970, just as Peter Yarrow pleaded guilty to "taking immoral liberties" with a 14-year-old girl in Washington, D.C. Stookey, by this time a born-again Christian, insists that this wasn't the catalyst for the group's dissolution.

"The group was gone before that happened. In the late Sixties, the desire to be close to a performer was evidencing itself, but there weren't categories at that time. I think Peter unfortunately got caught in a shift of perception in what was allowable. Who knew from groupies? Rock 'n' roll was still new. You didn't have the kind of abuses you see now chronicled on HBO, where it shows how Kiss auditions their dancing girls--`How much can you show us and what can you do with it?'"

Stookey offers a more palatable explanation as to why the successful trio needed to separate. "When we started, our sensibilities came from preserving the autonomy and integrity of each of the three members. But it's symptomatic of a lot of intense relationships where people are called upon to give up of themselves to make a relationship work. And you begin to erode the things that attracted you to one another, your inner strengths."

Peter, Paul and Mary were not slow to test their individual strengths. Unlike the members of Kiss, who flooded the marketplace with four solo albums all at once, the trio spaced its releases out to ensure each would get noticed. "Mary was first out of the box with her solo album, which was called Mary. I released an album called Paul & . . ."

Beginning to sense a pattern here? When Peter released his Peter album, fans who wanted to see the group back together could place the three albums side by side like pieces of a broken amulet and re-create the famous Milton Glaser-designed Peter, Paul and Mary logo. "Ironically enough," adds Stookey, "I was the one who least wanted to go out on the road, and I got the Top 30 single with 'The Wedding Song (There Is Love).'" Although there are only a handful of recorded cover versions of "The Wedding Song," it's performed at weddings as often as "Here Comes the Bride," "Hava Nagila" and "The Hokey Pokey." In 1972, Warren Beatty managed to reunite Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel and the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May for a McGovern fund raiser. PP&M continued one-off reunions for various causes until making it official with 1978's ill-advised Reunion album.

"Part of the tentativeness when we got back together in '78 was to be wary that we weren't sucked dry again. We kind of tiptoed around each other and we gave up the kind of hands-on involvement that we had prior to that album because we didn't want to make waves with each other. The material chosen was great, but I don't think our execution was all that great."

The year 1986 saw the far-better No Easy Walk to Freedom; the trio has stuck together ever since. Phil Ramone, who produced the group's Album 1700, is back on board the brand-new Lifelines, which takes a page from the highly successful Duets albums Ramone produced for Frank Sinatra. Though nearly every cut features a different celebrity pal, these duets were--with the exception of the Weavers track--all recorded live and in person, unlike the sterile, fiber-optics mode employed by Sinatra and his partners.

B.B. King and his beloved guitar Lucille duet with Mary on "House of the Rising Sun." Stookey gets to sing with Emmylou Harris on his pretty "For the Love of It All." Elsewhere, Stookey pushes the envelope into the Nineties with "Old Enough," in which the aging rock star of "I Dig Rock 'n' Roll Music" is finally at peace with his elder-statesman status ("My generation's rediscovered me/'Cause I'm on the cover of Modern Maturity"). He also cleverly introduces rap into PP&M's repertoire by utilizing the Weavers' "Talking Union Blues."

Because PP&M didn't limit themselves to one vein of folk at the outset, they continue to entertain a wide spectrum of ages to this day.

"If you look at the eclectic factor, we had children's songs as well as political songs. We felt we really owed a recognition to the fact that folk music had such a broad scope, and we draw a broad group. Our first concerts were mostly college kids and their parents; as we moved to municipal auditoriums, those college kids would bring their babies and parents who were now grandparents. Now those babies have grown up and they've had babies." Regardless of what you may think of PP&M or folk music in general, their contributions to the music world are significant and numerous. Stookey prefers to let folk music have the last word.

"The real impact folk music had was that it broke down the barriers to subject materials. Folk music came in and said, 'You can sing about anything.' It's a medium where we can talk about a lot of things." A lot of things indeed--war, social injustice, racial inequality. And lemon trees, hammers, jet planes, and manic-depressive dragons, too.

Peter, Paul and Mary are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 18, at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic