PETER, PAUL AND MARY
A SONG TO SING ALL OVER THIS LAND
by William Ruhlmann
(printed in the April 12, 1996 issue of
~reprinted by permission of the author~
The first amendment
to the Constitution of the United States, which went into effect in 1789, denies
Congress the authority to make any law abridging "the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of
grievances," and since the incorporation in 1802 of the capital city of
Washington, D.C. with it's broad vistas and large expanses of land, designed by
Pierre L'Enfant and laid out by Andrew Ellicott, American citizens have been
attracted to the seat of government to make their wishes known to the
legislators and government officials who work there. From the 1932
gathering of World War I veterans demanding early payment of a war bonus to the
1995 Million Man March proclaiming the personal responsibilities of
African-American males, U.S. citizens have gathered in Washington D.C., by
the tens and hundreds of thousands for social and political purposes.
But only one gathering has become known as the "March on
Washington," and that was the assembly of an estimated
quarter of a million blacks and whites on the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial
and the Washington Monument on August 28th, 1963. Formally known as the
"March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," "It was the
biggest, and surely the most diverse, demonstration in history for human
rights," wrote Milton Viorst. (Fire in the Streets: America In The
1960's, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) It was also a march
that was 22 years in coming, a march that began as a threat and ended as a
triumphant restatement of the goal of human freedom embodied in the
The idea for the
march was first conceived by A. (Asa) Philip Randolph (1889-1979), the most
important civil rights leader of his generation, who was the president of the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the major black labor union of it's time,
which he founded in 1925. In 1941, with American business gearing up for
World War II, Randolph met with President Franklin Roosevelt to demand that
blacks receive better treatment in the growing defense industry and that they be
integrated within the armed forces. If not, he threatened to organize a
march on Washington.
The threat worked.
On June 25, 1941, six days before the proposed march, Roosevelt signed Executive
Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the employment of workers in defense
industries or government, though military segregation did not end. The
march was called off, but the idea had taken root. A March on Washington
Committee continued to exist, and Randolph confronted a second president, Harry
Truman, on the military issue, with the result that Truman agreed to integrate
the armed forces in 1948.
In the 1950's, the
civil rights movement accelerated, starting with the Supreme Court's 1954
decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which began the desegregation of
public schools, and continuing with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of
1955-1956, which introduced the country to a young minister named Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). The movement quickened in the early 1960s,
turning to more active protests, such as the sit-ins intended to integrate
public facilities of 1960 and the Freedom Rides to integrate interstate buses in
1961, among other efforts.
But by the end of
1962, despite a comparatively sympathetic Kennedy Administration in Washington
and a series of isolated victories, it was apparent that "only sweeping
federal legislation could transform the terms of the struggle," according
to Viorst, and that "the movement had its best chance of succeeding if it
devised a unified strategy and concentrated its forces on big, dramatic
ventures." Thus, the idea for a massive march on Washington was
The march of 1963
was organized in Randolph's name by his deputy, anti-war and civil rights
activist Bayard Rustin (1910-1987). Today, the march is best-remembered
for King's speech, for his repeated declaration, "I have a dream,"
that brought the event to its conclusion. But as an event, the march was
the culmination of the early, progressive phase of the civil rights movement,
though it featured King's development of it into non-violent protest and even
elements of the later, more radical phase of the movement.
Kennedy had submitted a civil rights bill to Congress the day before the march
was announced in June, and like Roosevelt and Truman before him, he tried to
persuade Randolph and the others to call off the march, in this case on the
grounds that it would endanger passage of the bill. But when Kennedy found
he couldn't beat the march, he arranged to join it, endorsing it during a press
conference on July 17. The Administration entered into the planning of the
march, which was scheduled for Wednesday, August 28. Special trains and
buses were chartered up and down the Eastern seaboard and throughout the South,
with the intention of getting a crowd into the center of Washington by early in
the morning, and getting them out before sundown.
live, continuous, nationwide coverage of the march from late morning to the end
at five p.m. (the other two networks, ABC and NBC, began broadcasting in time
for King's speech), and it displayed appearances by a series of speakers
(limited to seven minutes, except King, who ignored the restriction and
spoke for 19 minutes) and entertainers: actors such as Marlon Brando, Charlton
Heston and Paul Newman, black performers such as Harry Belafonte, Marian
Anderson, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Diahann Carroll, and the cream of the folk music
community, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.
As they stood before the Lincoln Memorial singing Pete Seeger
and Lee Hayes's "The
Hammer Song" (If I Had a Hammer)," with its stirring final verse
about "the hammer of justice," "the bell of freedom"
and "the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this
land," Peter Yarrow, Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers,
all in their mid-20's, were not only the most politically committed, but also
the most popular singing group in the United States. Their single, "Blowin'
In The Wind" (which they also sang at the march), stood at #5 in its
10th week on Billboard magazine's Hot 100, its sixth week in the
Top 10, heading back up the chart after already peaking at #2 two weeks
before. Their second album, (Moving), released the previous
January, had been certified as a gold record the day before, following their
first, Peter, Paul and Mary. That week, (Moving), stood at
#4 on Billboard's Top LP's chart; Peter, Paul and Mary, in its
71st consecutive week on the chart, was at #7.
demand for performances around the world, the trio was doing close to 200
concerts a year, as well as scores of benefit performances of which the March on
Washington was only the most prominent.
It was a heady time for the group, due to both the progress of
its career and the promise of its politics. "I was very, very happy,
because I loved singing," said Yarrow, recalling that period 32 summers
later. "I was very committed. I'd seen the form rather than the
shadow. I knew that the world could be a better place. I knew that folk
music could and should have a role in making all that work,' I mean articulating
the vision and expressing creatively the sense of consensus by the activist
community, by the dreamers, by the organizers. I really entered folk music
more because I saw its capacity to be an actual expression of commonality than I
did because the music is so extraordinary. Yeah, the music is wonderful. I
studied the violin, and so are the violin concerti. But what really got to
me was the way in which folk music communicated and allowed one to live the
sense of commonality and how that sense could then be translated into any number
of forms: spiritual connection, political activism, formation of a
community of one sort or another in a geographical sense or in the sense of
people united with a particular sense of their direction."
"So I was motivated by two things, by a really powerful
vision of what might be in the world and an absolute belief that there was
something that was achievable, and number two, by a very clear sense that I was
in a position to be a player, along with Paul and Mary, and to try to articulate
that vision and lobby for its actualization." (Unless otherwise
noted, direct quotations from Yarrow, Stookey and Travers are drawn from
interviews with the author conducted in July and August 1995).
Yarrow and his fellow group members, as well as the larger
communities of folk musicians and fans and political advocates and supporters,
would have more trouble actualizing their vision than he thought in the summer
of 1963. By November, President Kennedy was dead, and the following
august, incidents real or imagined in the Tonkin Gulf of Vietnam provided the
new president, Lyndon Johnson, with his excuse to escalate what became the
country's longest and least successful war. In February 1964, the Beatles
invaded America, and the following year Dylan began playing rock 'n roll on an
electric guitar, events that effectively marginalized folk from the mainstream
of popular music.
Yet Peter, Paul and Mary, together, apart, and together again,
continued to seek inspiration from their music and to provide it to an audience
decades after their initial emergence. There were gradual changes in
the songs and the issues and the listeners, but the underlying commitment and
the overarching vision remained, as they do do today.
the first four or five years of my life, I was the journalistic equivalent of an
army brat," Mary Travers said "It's why I like words so much."
The daughter of two newspaper reporters, Mary
Allin Travers was born on November 9, 1936, in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1938, her family moved to New York City, and she grew up in Greenwich
Village, then, as now, a primary breeding ground for folk musicians.
Travers studied music with Charity Bailey as early as elementary school and also
absorbed folk styles in Washington Square Park and other places around the
"My life was full of people who were involved, seriously
involved, in folk music," Travers told Kristin Baggelaar and Donald Milton.
(Folk Music: More Than A Song, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976)
"I had met Pete [Seeger] when I was about ten, and I also met people
like Paul Robeson. But it never occurred to me that it would become my
profession-- it was a hobby, an avocation, something that was wonderful and
inclusive and non-snobby and anybody could sing, even if they couldn't
Music and politics went together, "Folk music was a
very integral part of the liberal Left experience." she told Joe Smith. (Off
The Record: An Oral History of Popular Music, New York: Warner Books, 1988)
(Smith, a record industry veteran, was national promotion manager at Warner
Bros. Records when Peter, Paul and Mary signed to the label in 1962.)
"It was writers, sculptors, painters, whatever, listening to Woody
Seeger, the Weavers. People sang in Washington Square Park on Sundays,
and you really did not have to have a lot of talent to sing folk music.
You needed enthusiasm, which is all folk music asks. It asks that you
care. Even if you're playing spoons, have a good time doing it. "
"So for me it was a social mechanism. I would go to
the White Horse Tavern and sit in the back room with the Clancy Brothers.
I've never been a drinker, but I would sit with them. They drank and I had
a wonderful time with my Coca-Cola."
Traver's interest and availability helped lead to her first
group involvement and first recordings while she was still in high school.
In 1941, Keynote Records had released Talking Union and Other Union Songs (Keynote 106), an album consisting of three 78 r.p.m. records by the
Almanac Singers, a loosely organized folk group featuring Woody Guthrie
and Pete Seeger. In the mid-1950s, Moses Asch, who ran Folkways Records,
decided to re-release the album. But by then, the era of the 12-inch LP
had arrived, and he needed more material. He and Seeger came up with the
idea of recording a new set of union songs to fill out the disc.
"I went to Elizabeth Irwin High School," Travers
recalled. "Bob DeCormier was our musical director at Elizabeth Irwin,
and he and Pete [Seeger] were friends. I had known Pete, too, because I
was involved in folk music as a fan-participant." So it was that
Travers, along with three of her schoolmates and four other young singers
including Erik Darling (who later replaced Seeger in the Weavers and after that
founded the Rooftop Singers of "Walk Right In" fame), accompanied
Seeger on seven songs-- "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Roll The Union
On," "Casey Jones," "Miner's Lifeguard,"
"Solidarity Forever," "Join The Union," and "Hold The
Fort"--- making up side one of the 1955 Folkways reissue of Talking
Union (Folkways FH 5285).
It's a spirited recording of songs that, appropriately, sound
more like something from the labor movement of the late 1930's than music
made in the mid-50's, credited to "Pete Seeger and Chorus." Seeger and
his banjo take the lead on "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Casey
Jones" and "Solidarity Forever," while the chorus comes in mostly
on, well, the choruses; "Roll The Union On" is a group-sing with
sections featuring unison female voices, none of which is individually
discernible; and while "Miner's Lifeguard," "Join The Union"
and "Hold The Fort" feature solo female singing, none of the voices
are definitely identifiable as Travers.
With this recording, "The Song Swappers were born,"
Travers said. They were born busy, releasing three more LPs in 1955.
First up was Folksongs Of Four Continents (Folkways FW 6911), which,
though credited to the Song Swappers alone, also found Seeger singing lead on
many songs. "Ah! Si Mon Moine" features a couple of solo female
voices, one of which may be Travers, and she may also have a solo verse on
"Hey, Daroma." "The Greenland Whalers," here arranged
by Seeger, would be recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary as "Greenland Whale
Fisheries," with an arrangement by Seeger's fellow Weaver Fred Hellerman,
in 1987. (Actually, depending on how you count them, five continents seem
to be represented, as there were folk songs, in six languages, that were
traceable to North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa on the LP, not to
mention a couple from the Bahamas.)
The next release was Bantu Choral Folk Songs (Folkways
FW 6912), credited to "the Song Swappers, Pete Seeger, director and
arranger," More than 30 years before Pail Simon discovered mbaqanga,
Seeger learned these songs, copyrighted by the Lovedale Missionary Institution
in Lovedale, Capetown Province, Union of South Africa ( and originally published
in African Folk Songs, edited by the Reverend H.C.N. Williams and J.N.
Maselway), from Mrs. Z.K. Mathews when her husband , one of the leaders of the
African National Congress, was teaching at the Union Theological Seminary in New
York City in 1953. Seeger wrote his own English lyrics to some of the
tunes, while retaining much of the original flavor.
The Greenwich Village teenagers may not have had quite the
flair of Ladysmith Black Mambazo ("It seems probable that the reaction of a
South African native musician to these records would be mixed," admits
annotator Richard A. Waterman), but the album is notable for introducing "Abiyoyo,"
a song that would be a popular part of Seeger's later repertoire. Travers
is heard most prominently on "Hey, Tswana," a song relating to the
Bantu boys' coming-of-age initiation ceremony.
Finally, there was a children's album, Camp Songs With 6 To
11 Year Olds, "directed and accompanied by Pete Seeger and Erik Darling
and the Song Swappers," originally released on Folkways' Scholastic Records
division as SC 7628, featuring such familiar kiddie ditties as "Bingo Was
His Name," "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmitt" and "I Was Born
10,000 Years Ago," which features the line , "I saw Peter, Paul and
Moses/Playing ring-around-the-rosie." The unnamed
six-to-eleven-year-olds get the better of the first side, which sounds like what
you'd get at an impromptu sing-along in any elementary school in the country.
On side two, Darling is the sole performer on "Happy Jackie Junior."
"Spring Would Be"/"There Was A Little Man," "Oh, When
Pop Was A Little Boy" and "Hard Luck Blues," "Kevin
Barry," and "Finegan, Beginigin" feature the children's chorus,
while "Putting On The Style" features the Song Swappers, including
solo singing by by Travers.
(All four of these albums currently are available on cassette
from Smithsonian/Folkways by calling  443-2314 or faxing  443-1819 or
by writing to Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, 414 Hungerford Drive, Suite 444,
Rockville, MD 20850.)
The Song Swappers also performed live, appearing twice at
Carnegie Hall, but the members did not keep the group going beyond high school.
Indeed, despite her interest in folk music, Travers was afraid of performing
live and not interested in a singing career. "I never wanted to be a
professional singer," she said. "It is odd that I have
She was, however, still interested in listening to other
people sing, which is what brought her to sit in the audience at Carnegie Hall
on December 24, 1955, when the Weavers, the folk quartet of Seeger, Hellerman,
Lee Hayes and Ronnie Gilbert that had achieved enormous popularity in 1950
and '51, only to disband in '52 after being blacklisted, returned defiantly to
action. It was the night when the 10-year folk music boom of the late
1950's and early 1960's began, and also in the audience was Peter Yarrow, though
it would be another five years before he and Travers met.
Her next step on this unchosen path came in the spring of 1958
in the form of a a Broadway musical called The Next President, starring
topical comedian Mort Sahl. "It was a one-man show, in essence,"
Travers said, "with a chorus that was sort of like a contemporary Greek
"Some friends of mine knew the director," she
continued, "and said, 'They're having auditions for this show, and they're
looking for folk singers. Why don't you go and audition?' I thought.
'Please! This is a person who's terrified of performing. You're asking me
to go audition. What are you, crazy?' They just nudgied me to death,
and finally they took me to the theater and threw me in there. I sang 'Red
Rosy Bush' unaccompanied. They hired me, and I spent the worst week of my
life, absolutely so terrified that I wept... But it was only one week!"
The Next President opened April 9, 1958, at the Bijou
Theatre on Broadway. "The season's last lyrical entertainment,"
wrote Gerald Bordman, " was a 'Musical Salmagundi' that included comedian
Mort Sahl, a dancer, Anneleise Widman, and a group labeled simply 'The Folk
Singers.' Although the next election year was far off, the evening bore
the untimely title The Next President and provided each act with a
socially significant label. The first set was 'The Status Quo,' while the
second was the more awkward, 'A Brand New Attitude with the same Old
Prejudices.' One of 'The Folk Singers' numbers was 'The Chorus Of
Collective Conscience,' but it fell largely to Sahl to deliver the the
leftish-slanted political satire in adaptations of his night-club
free-association monologues. This was the era of Eisenhower complacency,
and not too many New Yorkers were willing to listen. The show was
withdrawn after 13 performances." (American Musical Theater: A
Chronicle, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) No original cast album
was recorded for The Next President.
Greatly relieved, Travers returned to a non-performing life
that found her marrying and bearing a daughter while working at jobs in literary
and advertising agencies in Manhattan.
But Travers also kept up with the local folk scene while
living on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. In a basement across the
street was the Gaslight, a small folk club, where in early 1961 she met the
resident M.C., a comedian and sometime folk singer named Noel
birthday often is erroneously reported as November 30 or December
24. "It's a little difficult to change." he noted, "because
the radios get their information from some source. But I get cards then.
It's kind of nice to be reminded that my birthday's coming up." In
fact, Stookey was born on December 30, 1937, in Baltimore, Maryland, where he
grew up "listening to the radio," as he told Kristin Baggelaar and
Donald Milton. The music he was listening to was R&B, and it wasn't
long before he wanted to play it himself. He began learning the guitar at
the age of 11, and became the owner of an early electric model soon after.
"My folks could tell I was busting out musically,"
he told Helen Casabona, "so they gave me a banjo one Christmas. But I
didn't want a banjo, I wanted an electric guitar. So they got me a Kay
electric with a semi-acoustic body and I reworked it, putting some long-handled
volume and tone control knobs on it. I played that thing until I was 21...
"(Artists of American Folk Music, edited by Phil Hood, New York:
In high school between 1951 and 1955, Stookey formed a band,
the Birds of Paradise. "The first actual recording of the Birds
of Paradise was called The
Birds Fly Home," he recalled, "half of it recorded live
in an auditorium at the high school and the other half recorded live at a dance
held in November of the same year. The quality of the tape was
wonderful, but the tapes were lost and the only auditory evidence of there
ever being such a recording is the scratchy 10-inch LPs. There are a few
of them out there."
In the fall of 1955, Stookey began attending Michigan State
University, where he continued to perform. "Though the band broke up
when we each went to college, I found an immediate use for my talents at
Michigan State and went on to do a lot of solo singing and had a group there
called the Corsairs," he said. This led to another record.
"The second recording was made [under] better circumstances at Michigan
State. I don't know if you remember the football player Clarence Peeks,
but he was on one side of the record, I was on the other side of the record.
It was a fund-raising thing, and that was Noel Stookey and the Corsairs."
Already, however, Stookey had discovered that he had
additional talents on-stage. "At that point, I was much more useful
to the powers that be there as a master of ceremonies," he said.
"And that's truly where I got my comfort level up in terms of speaking with
By the time Stookey left Michigan State, his family had moved
to Philadelphia, where he got a job in a camera shop. In 1959, he moved to
a job as a production manager at Cormac Chemical Corporation in New York, taking
along his guitar "as a hobby," he told Baggelaar and Milton.
Soon, though, he was spending evenings and weekends in the clubs in Greenwich
Village, and he turned to entertaining full time in 1960.
"When I came to the Village in 1959, I had a very
eclectic kind of job," he said. "It was everything from a maitre
d' to a standup comic to a traditional folk artist, that is to say,
I would do versions of traditional songs as well as [being] a songwriter.
All those things were available to me , and I felt comfortable with all of them.
I wasn't really all that good at them, but, what is that adage? 'It isn't how
well the elephant dances, but the fact that he does it at all!' I think
people were 'Oh, gosh! Look he can make sound effects, and be funny, too. Oh,
gosh! That's kind of a pretty tune,' or 'Oh, he can play guitar.'
"Also, in those days, the public awareness of musical
talent was pretty much limited to the amount of music that was available to them
on radio and record and tape, and that must have been probably one
twentieth of what's available now. Everybody's got a great voice
now. There were some real borderline voices in the late '50's, early
'60's, particularly coming out of Philadelphia then in that rock scene:
Frankie Avalon, Fabian. We heard stories in the '60's in the recording
studios where, in order to beef up somebody's voice, they would even play the
track through the open chording of a piano. You know, somebody would just
depress the keys and just hold them down, and change keys as the singer sang,
and they would play the speaker through the open wires of the piano and then
pick it up with a microphone on the other side, just to enhance the tonality.
But there's just so many good singers out there now."
"Paul Stookey was a good single, a damn good
single," Dave Van Ronk, who
played the same clubs at the same time, told Robbie Wolliver (Bringing It All
Back Home: 25 years Of American Folk Music At Folk City, New York: Pantheon
Books, 1986) "He was a stand-up comic, poor man. He used to use the
mike a lot. He did imitations. He did Hitler at the Nuremberg rally
in Sid Caesar German-- in a high falsetto voice that sounded nothing like
Adolf Hitler. It was hilarious. Also, he had this very convincing
imitation of an old -timey flush toilet. The
Cafe Wha? had a big sign up when he was working there that said: 'Noel
Stookey, the Toilet Man.'
"I've always liked his solo singing a lot. He used
to do straight ballads, and very convincingly."
Van Ronk influenced Stookey to turn more to folk music.
Already, as he told Helen Casabona, he had borrowed $20, sold his electric
guitar and amp and bought a Martin 0021 Classical acoustic guitar, after hearing
Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia. But "in terms of folk music, it was
only because I started singing in the Village and was exposed to people like [Tom]
Paxton, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and especially
Dave Van Ronk that I became
interested in doing some of those songs," he told Baggelaar and Milton.
"I met Noel Paul Stookey because he was singing at the
Gaslight across the street," said Travers. "He was a newcomer to
town, and I sort of showed him the Italian fair and all that stuff because I
grew up in the Village and I could be an official guide." Travers
agreed to Stookey's requests that she sing with him at the Gaslight, but her
stage fright had not diminished. "I would get up on-stage with Noel
and sing two songs and then go in the ladies room and think about throwing
up," she said.
One night in the spring of 1961, Stookey was approached by
Albert Grossman, a club owner and personal manager, who said he was putting
together a new act, a folk trio, and asked if Stookey was interested in joining
it. Stookey said no.
B. Grossman was born in Chicago in 1926, the son of a tailor. He attended
Lane Technical High School and graduated from the University of Chicago with a
degree in economic theory, though he also studied child psychology under Bruno
Bettelheim, author of the psychological analysis of fairy tales The
Uses Of Enchantment. (No doubt that came in handy later, when Grossman
found himself working with a psych major who had written "Puff, The Magic
Dragon.") After a brief career in city government, Grossman and his
college friend Les Brown (later a TV critic for The New York Times) put
up the money to start a folk club, the Gate of Horn. (Alan Ribback later
became his partner, as did John Court.) The club was successful, and like
other club owners, Grossman gradually moved towards managing some of the
performers who played there. Bob Gibson was an early client, followed by
Odetta. In 1959, Grossman teamed with George Wein, a jazz musician and
club owner out of Boston who had been booking the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode
Island since 1955, to launch the Newport Folk
Wein already had relocated to New York, the center of the jazz
music business, and the city was also the center of the growing folk scene.
Grossman began staying with Wein at his apartment at 50 Central Park West, and
with a third a partner, they set up Personal Artist Management Associates (PAMA).
Later, when he moved to New York permanently, he would start Albert B. Grossman
Management at 75 East 55th Street. Meanwhile, he went to the folk clubs in
Greenwich Village to look for talent, which was what brought him into the Cafe
Wha? one night early in 1960, where he watched an earnest young folk singer
named Peter Yarrow.
"He walked out right in the middle of my show,"
Yarrow was born in New York City on May 31, 1938. His family, he told
Baggelaar and Milton, "placed a great emphasis on ethics, values and
culture." They also seem to have placed a high value on the arts and
on scholarship: In addition to his violin lessons, Yarrow took art lessons and
learned the guitar in emulation of the folk heroes of the 1940's -- Woody
Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and Josh White. He attended their
concerts, along with classical and opera performances. And he attended the
High School of Music and Art. Graduating in 1955, he enrolled at Cornell
University, where he studied psychology.
He also, for the first time outside the urban, left-wing
intellectual environs of New York City, suddenly found himself in the conformist
Eisenhower America of the 1950s. It was, he said, " a world that was
at that point very alien, felt very alien, to the point of view that we
[he and friends like Richard Farina, later a folk singer and novelist] later
espoused and at that point that we internally espoused, but that we found very
little outlet for sharing, for validation, in the context of a very conservative
school at the time. Cornell was that and periodically returns to that
Upon graduating from Cornell in 1959, Yarrow at first stayed
at the college and took a job as an assistant instructor to an English professor
for a course in folklore and folk music. Formally known as "English
355/356," it was popularly known as "Romp and Stomp."
"I did it for the money because I wanted to wash dishes
less and play guitar more ," he told Joe Smith. "But as soon as
I started teaching this course, something happened that altered my life."
In the process of teaching the material, I would sing songs to
them, and with them, and I realized that something very fundamental and
meaningful was happening-- I was acting as a catalyst, opening people to
themselves and to ideas and to feelings," he told Baggelaar and
"I saw these young people at Cornell who were basically
very conservative in their backgrounds opening their hearts up and singing with
an emotionality and a concern through this vehicle called folk music,"
he told Smith. "It gave me a clue that the world was on it's way to a
certain kind of movement, and that folk music might play a part in it and that I
might play a part in folk music."
Perhaps some day the world will get to hear what the students
did. "I made a tape up at Cornell that never came out as a
record," Yarrow said. "But I still have that tape of
myself singing in the class that I instructed in."
The effect of the experience, Yarrow told Smith, was that
"by the end of the year I was catapulted from a degree in psychology to
He had decided, he told Baggelaar and Milton, to "take a
year or two to perform" before committing himself to a career in
psychology. It was not long after that Albert Grossman walked out on his
performance at the Cafe Wha?
"He later said that he just had a place to go, and he saw
what he wanted to see," Yarrow explained. "So, he didn't walk
out in the sense of leave me, he decided about me, and his feelings were
then crystallized at a later time."
Not much later, in fact. In the spring of 1960, Grossman
saw Yarrow again. "There was a place on 57th Street called the Baq
Door, and I had an audition there," Yarrow said. "I went there
and they said, 'Alas, they're going to tear down the building, and we've lost
our lease. So, we'll be closing shortly, but you can play if you like.'
And for me, any opportunity I had to play, I was in heaven. So, I just
picked up the guitar, and it turned out to be one of those proverbial
casting-bread-upon-the-waters situations, or really more the idea that when
you're starting out you knock on every door. In this case, the assistant
to Robert Herridge was in the audience."
Herridge was a television producer/director who had worked on
the dramatic anthology series Kraft Television Theatre, which ran on NBC
and ABC between 1947 and 1958. Now he was planning a folk music special
for CBS called Folk Sound, U.S.A. , which was why he had his assistant
talent-scouting in midtown. "Afterwards, he came up to me,"
Yarrow said, "because at that time what used to happen invariably
when I would sing was that the women in the audience--not the men--, but the
women--would cry. I would sing songs like 'Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?'
and I was a very, very intense, passionate singer internally, and this was not
an unexpected response.
"He came up, and he said, 'I work for Robert Herridge,
and we may be doing a television show, the first national televsion'--it was
called a 'spectacular,' not a folk spectacular. And sure enough, months later he
called up, and he said, 'Come in for an audition.' I did, and the
secretary of Robert Herridge dissolved in tears, and so it went.
"It was there that I encountered Albert Grossman for the
second time. Joan Baez, who I believe he was representing at the time, was
on that show, as well as Earl Scruggs and Johnny Lee Hooker. [Grossman]
asked me to get together with him and asked me if I'd like for him to
manage me, which I consented for him to do, and we formed a relationship at that
point, around the time of the first rehearsals for the show."
Folk Sound, U.S.A. was broadcast in May. That
summer, due to Grossman's sponsorship, Yarrow played the second Newport Folk
Festival. Bob Spitz quotes Dave Van Ronk as saying, "The set Peter
was doing at the time consisted of a French tune called 'Les Pacifistes,'
several syrupy ballads, and of course, 'Puff,' which I hated. We all hated
it. You had to hate that song even if you liked it!" (Dylan: A
Biography, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989)
"Puff, The Magic Dragon," the song that folk singers
loved to hate, and that generations of children would just love, was
conceived by a friend of Yarrow's in late 1958. "It was in my senior
year, during finals, before the winter break, that the basis of the song was
typed out on a sheet written by Leonard Lipton, who was kind of my little
brother in a fraternity-to-end-all-fraternities kind of concept,"
Yarrow said. "I guess we were all lonely, and yet we didn't like the idea
of fraternities, and so this was one of those fraternities of so-called losers.
Of course, in the light of today that all looks rather ludicrous, though at the
time it was a pretty rugged social system at Cornell and, really, in the United
States. Sensibilities were very much of the '50s. The '60's had not
yet brought another view of the way people think of fairness, justice,
sensitivity to one another, whatever."
'I took that and worked on it and added more than half again
the lyrics that had been written and put a melody to it. Indeed, I've
recovered the first scrap of paper and my notes on it. So, I've been able
to say, 'Oh, I wrote that line.' What I brought to it really was the
sense, as opposed to the adventure story, of the idea of the loss of innocence,
when I wrote, 'A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys,' at the time.
Now, I sing, 'girls and boys.' The idea was that this was a song
that really had a sense of tragic, if you will, implications, like some of the
great mythical stories.
As we reached that point of growing up, it's at best a sad
sweetness when we emerge as adults because we have to leave childish things,
"Now, implicit in that story is the possibility that as
adults we might find another way to confirm something analogous to innocence,
and, indeed, I do believe that folk music in general and idealism and belief in
possibility-- as opposed to the mean-spiritedness that seems to be grasping this
nation in such a frightening way-- that the other hopeful point of view and the
desire to continue to work toward an ideal, is for me a continuation of
innocence. But that isn't really indicated in the song, it's just my own
feeling," (And you thought it was just a children's song.)
With Grossman booking him, Yarrow began to appear in the major folk clubs around
the country--Grossman's Gate of Horn in Chicago, Ed Perl's Ash Grove in Los
Angeles, Mike Porco's Folk City in New York. "I worked with
[Grossman] for about a year," Yarrow recalled, "at which
point he suggested that I make a group."
Actually, Albert Grossman had had the idea of a group before he
ever saw Peter Yarrow. Since Grossman had been in the folk music business,
groups had been some of its most successful performers. From 1950 to 1952,
the Weavers--Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman-- had
scored a series of major hits with harmonized pop arrangements of traditional
and contemporary folk songs before they were forced to disband due to the
anti-Communist witch hunts of the era. As noted, the group made a
celebrated return in late 1955, and though they continued to be banned by the
mass media, they toured and recorded successfully into the early 1960s.
Then, in 1958, the Kingston
Trio-- Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds--
released their version of "Tom Dooley," which became a gold-selling,
#1 hit and launched them on a series of successful albums through
1963. The Kingstons proved to be a model for other folk trios, such
as the Limelighters-- Glen Yarbrough, Lou Gottlieb and Alex Hassilev--
who formed in 1959.
Grossman's concept for a
folk group blended elements from these earlier versions. From the
Weavers, Grossman took the idea of featuring a woman, for example.
From the Limelighters, he took the idea of having one member (it was Gottlieb
in that group) provide a comic element.
The success of these performers,
and of other folk singers, such as Harry Belafonte, who had begun
scoring Caribbean-oriented hits in 1956, and Joan Baez, who was launched
by the 1959 Newport Folk Festival and who was represented by Grossman before
switching to Manny Greenhill, suggested that a new audience had opened
up for popular music. In recent years, adults had brought the albums
of pop singers like Frank Sinatra, while teens had bought the singles of
rock 'n rollers like Elvis Presley.
But in 1960, with the baby
boom generation emerging from pre-adolescence, 3.5 million Americans were
enrolled in college, a third more than in 1955. By 1965, the U.S. college
population would be 5.5 million, or nearly half of all whites in their
late adolescence, in fact, about a quarter of all Americans between
21 and 24. That was an affluent, literate audience that did not identify
with Sinatra's older sophistication or with Presley's rocking fervor.
And, as the new decade would confirm, they were interested in politics.
Robert Shelton, a music critic
for The New York Times, watched Grossman try out different "components"
for the trio and later wrote about it in his book No Direction Home:
The Life And Times Of Bob Dylan (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986).
"He ... briefly considered Molly Scott and Logan English," Shelton wrote.
"Next, having long admired Bob Gibson, Carolyn [Hester], and Ray Boguslav,
a commercial artist and highly schooled musician. But the group didn't
gel either. Gibson had periodic losses of voice and was befouled
with problems. Boguslav was a serious musician, but he wasn't about
to chuck his art career unless there were ample guarantees. Carolyn
was ready, willing, and able to be the pretty girl. But by March
1960, she began to despair. 'I really have grave doubts the trio
will work out,' she wrote me. 'We made some tapes, I wasn't terribly
good, but we could do something if we worked at it. Boguslav's range is
so much different than mine. We ended up with little semblance
of a "blend" or "sound". The trio also lacked the dedicated toughness
Albert ultimately found with Peter, Mary, and Paul."
After Bob, Ray and
Carolyn didn't pan out, Grossman turned to Peter Yarrow. "He said,
'You know, I think that you could be very successful as a solo, but I'm
convinced that if you made a group with a particular idea in mind, where
you had a particular identity that was continued, so that you're not all
adopting the same identity a la the Four Freshman or the Brothers Four
or something, that you could have everything you would want in a solo career,
but I think that it would be also a very powerful statement and I think
a very successful idea,'" Yarrow recalled.
"So, we went about looking
for other people for me to work with. One of the ideas was that one
of the members of the group would be a comedian, and Noel was one of the
great comedians in New York at the time, ranked up there with Bill Cosby
and with Woody Allen. I saw Noel perform at the Gaslight, and I thought
he was terrific. He did a little playing of the guitar and a little
singing, but basically his whole performance was that of a comic.
He was brilliant, and I thought he'd be a great person to work with.
I just intuited that. In the meantime, Albert spoke to him and came
back with the report, 'Well, he says he doesn't really want to do it, but
I think he'll do it.'
"I found a woman whose name
I now forget that I worked with for a while, but it didn't really work
out and I could tell the chemistry wasn't right." One day, Yarrow
and Grossman were at the Folklore Center, run by Izzy Young, which Travers
described as "a little store about two doors down from the Gaslight.
They sold guitars and strings and music books and stuff, and on one wall
Izzy put up pictures of everybody who's ever uttered a note of a folk song,"
including, of course, Mary Travers.
"I saw a picture of Mary,
and I said, 'Who's that?'," Yarrow recalled, "because she was just bursting
with energy and very beautiful and all that, and Albert said, 'Oh, she's
terrific, if you could get her to work." Now, I don't know what that
meant at the time. I mean, what does that mean? 'If you could get
her to work.' That meant-- I mean, I have many ideas. I never
quizzed him on it. It could have meant that she was so involved with
her new daughter. It might have meant that, 'Oh, she's kind of a
Village fixture who doesn't really ever get her teeth into something,'
or just some idea of the lifestyle that she was enjoying being at variance
with the demands of seriously moving on the kind of agenda we were envisioning.
But I don't know. I've thought about it from time to time,
but I never did ask Albert."
Why not ask Travers?
This wasn't because I was lazy," she said, "it was because I was terrified.
I didn't know Peter. Peter was being managed by a guy who was managing
Bob Gibson and Odetta, and I had met Albert Grossman through them.
He came to me, and we talked, and we sang a few songs together."
"I went up to Mary's apartment,
and I sang with her." Yarrow said. "It was okay, but it was
incomplete, in the same sense that's it's nice now when the two of us sing,
but something magical happens when we add the three voices together."
Neither Yarrow nor Travers
mentioned it but Dave Van Ronk and his wife Terri Thal have said that Grossman
approached Van Ronk at this point. "Albert had Mary and Peter, and
was looking for a third." Thal told Robbie Wolliver. "He offered
it to Logan English and David [Van Rock] and a few others. He finally
found Noel Stookey, who was perfect. David would have been a total
bomb. David was obviously not the right person for a pop-folk group.
It was going to be white music and a pop-folk group. It would have been
a horror all around."
Van Ronk is quoted by Bob Spitz corroborating the offer, but
Spitz's account (Like much of Dylan: A Biography) is too harsh and
contains too many factual errors to be completely trustworthy. (For
example, Spitz quotes Van Ronk as saying that Grossman had lined up musical
director Milt Okun and a contract with Warner Bros. Records before forming the
trio. That sounds unlikely on its face and, as we shall see, is in fact
already met Mary," said Yarrow. "Indeed, he had
accompanied her on a song that we later recorded on In Concert called 'Single
Girl.' But, to my knowledge. they no more had the idea of making a
group than anybody around at that point. It was Albert's idea to make a
group, and it was Albert's suggestion that it contain a comedian, a very strong,
energetic woman's voice-- ballsy is I guess the term that you might use-- and
that I would be the serious presenter on-stage and the sensitive male lead
singer. It was never anticipated that Noel would be such a very gifted
songwriter and singer as he turned out to be, whose roots, by the way, were not
really folk music."
Noel up. He was there. We went over to his apartment. We mentioned a
bunch of folk songs, which he didn't know because he didn't have a real
folk music background, and wound up singing 'Mary Had A Little Lamb,' and it was
immediately great, was just as clear as a bell, and we started working."
Around this time,
on June 19, 1961, Stookey sat in the Gaslight reading The New York
Herald Tribune, which contained an article about a Father's Day boat cruise
up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain that had gone awry due to counterfeit
tickets and overcrowding. Stookey showed the story to a recent
acquaintance, a 20-year-old singer named Bobby Dylan who has arrived in New York
from Minnesota the previous winter.
handing him an article on the Bear Mountain thing," Stookey said,
"and he brought a song back the next day. Astounding," The
song was "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Disaster Blues," which
Dylan wrote in the style of his idol, Woody Guthrie. Dylan was not
at that point known as a song writer, which made the composition all the more
surprising. Stookey told Grossman that Dylan was somebody worth watching.