Peter, Paul and Mary still hammering out love between brothers and their sisters
July 30, 1999
By Paul Clinton
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- It's still a couple of hours to show time on a sunny afternoon in July, and backstage at the Hollywood Bowl things are fairly calm. Noel "Paul" Stookey is busy tuning his guitar, and Mary Travers is singing the praises of the sushi restaurant she visited the night before. Peter Yarrow is off in the distance, talking on the phone.
Then it's interview time, and the three troubadours suddenly materialize into Peter, Paul and Mary, sitting side by side, complete with guitars, and ready for another cozy chat about folk music, politics and the 1960s optimism they still wear like a favorite old cloak.
Now, actually in their 60s, the trio still performs "If I Had a Hammer" nearly 40 years after the artists first sang together at the Bitter End in New York City's Greenwich Village. If they really did have a hammer, it would be worn down to a nub by now.
They're currently on their annual summer tour of the United States and recently have released two new CDs. One, "Peter, Paul & Mary: Around the Campfire," is a box set released in April 1998. It includes many of their old hits -- songs now sung around fires at summer camps everywhere. The other CD is "Peter, Paul and Mary: Songs of Conscience & Concern: A Retrospective Collection." Released in March, it features music the artists say they've found inspiring.
Songs of society
For these three singers, the spirit of the '60s is still alive in song. "I don't think we could afford not to keep it alive." says Travers. "I think the last thing in the world I want to be in is a grumpy old group. And I think if you don't keep optimism alive, that's what happens to you."
Their 1962 debut album "Peter, Paul and Mary" became an instant classic and the trio produced hit after hit in the '60s. From "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" to "Puff the Magic Dragon," the group had America singing along. They won Grammys while making folk music a major force in American music.
"I think what's fun about the '60s was the exhilaration of this 'We're going to change the world,'" attitude, says Travers. "That huge group of young people with all this energy and idealism out there saying, 'Let's make it better.' I miss that as a movement."
Peter, Paul and Mary helped fuel that idealism. But they agree that while music can have a positive effect on people, it can also have a negative effect. They admit there now are a lot of angry, negative lyrics out there. But, they say they feel censorship is not the answer.
"There's a great danger in saying, 'OK, we're not going to have any of that, let's censor that," Travers says. "'I don't want to hear that. I don't want to think about that,' because it's ugly or repulsive or whatever. You can't shut that out.
'Not a kinder or gentler nation'
"The real problem is that we're not a kinder or gentler nation, or a kinder or gentler world," she says. "The real problem is the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens every day. Poverty is probably the most vulgar of conditions, and music begins to resonate, echo that vulgarity. And we don't want to hear it."
When reminded about what some critics have perceived as a link between Marilyn Manson's gothic rock and the Littleton, Colorado, shootings, Yarrow says, "I think there's no doubt that music is a great emotional companion and when you introduce words into a person's psyche -- with all the emotion that music can bring -- you're affecting the human condition. It's unfortunate that we have to have a circumstance like Columbine before we address it.
"However," he says, "I'm very optimistic about what arts in schools can do. Because they're the kind of thing that breaks down cliques. When you get the quarterback to play the lead in the spring play, or the school nerd involved in set design -- it's that kind of interactivity and interaction that occurs between students that really builds them into a community."
Yarrow says that with folk music you wear your heart on your sleeve. "Cool is still king among adolescents," he says, "and when you get a group of 14-year-olds together and they manage to sing, 'This Land Is Your Land,' or 'If I Had a Hammer,' you know, 'I'd hammer out justice and freedom and love between my brothers and my sisters,' you get the sense that the time is alive again, that the reality, the possibility, is alive again."
Neither Peter, Paul nor Mary has ever shut out the unpleasant. They've been active in various anti-war efforts and marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1969. In more recent times, they've protested the United States government's involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Today they give their time, music, and money to work addressing gun violence against children, and the homeless.
"We'll keep shaking our stick at the White House," laughs Travers, "until we don't remember why we're shaking the stick."
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