For the past couple of months I’ve been writing blogs about various musicians who have used their music as a means of social activism. Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, John Mellencamp, and The Specials are among the musicians from my youth that had deep social consciences. All of these musicians owe a debt to the great musicians of the 1960s who took part in the antiwar and civil rights movement. Among the most important musical activists of that time were Peter, Paul and Mary.
Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers came together in 1961 after auditioning for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. After performing in Greenwich Village and perfecting their musical act, the trio began releasing a series of albums and popular folk songs that were big hits in the music scene. Their first album Peter, Paul and Mary was the number 1 record in the Billboard Charts for 7 weeks, yielding the hit songs “Lemon Tree”, “500 Miles”, and the Pete Seeger tunes “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” They did beautiful renditions of Bob Dylan songs like “Blowing In The Wind”, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and “When the Ship Comes In.” Peter Yarrow wrote one of their biggest hits “Puff The Magic Dragon” in 1963. Their biggest hit was “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, written by John Denver, which hit #1 on the charts in 1969.
During this time, Peter, Paul and Mary performed in many demonstrations and political rallies. All three of them were strong progressives and they felt that it was important to be socially active. During the 1960s they took part in many civil rights and anti-war rallies and demonstrations. A highlight of their early activism is when they performed “If I Had a Hammer” at the 1963 March on Washington. They also performed John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” at 1969’s Vietnam War Moratorium demonstration. After the 1960s they continued to champion progressive causes. In 1972, they performed a concert at Madison Square Garden to support George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and in 1978, for a concert to protest against nuclear energy. In the 1970s and 1980s, they protested against nuclear power; against political suppression in El Salvador, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, and South Korea; against apartheid in South Africa; and against American intervention in Central America. In 1982, Paul Stookey wrote the song “El Salvador” for the group to protest the United States involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War. During the 1990s, Peter, Paul and Mary spoke out on the Rodney King hearings, advocated for women’s reproductive rights, and support for the Clinton campaign. In 2004 the documentary Peter, Paul and Mary: Carry It On- A Musical Legacy documents their musical and activist history.
In Peter, Paul and Mary’s website is a description of their social activism:
In the decades prior to the ’60s, through the work of such avatars as Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and Pete Seeger, folk music had become identified with sociopolitical commentary, but the idiom had been forced underground in the Senator Joe McCarthy witch-hunting era of the late ’50s. By the time Peter, Paul and Mary arrived on the scene, for the majority of America, folk was viewed merely as a side-bar to pop music which employed acoustic instruments. At this critical historic juncture, with the nation still recovering from the McCarthy era, the Civil Rights Movement taking shape, the Cold War heating up and a nascent spirit of activism in the air, Peter Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey and Mary Travers came together to juxtapose these cross currents and thus to reclaim folk’s potency as a social, cultural and political force. But few at the time could have realized how fervently and pervasively the group’s message of humanity, hope and activism would be embraced.
Having their music associated with causes and solutions is as natural as breathing for Peter, Paul and Mary. The music they purvey and the action it generates are equally important to them and lie at the heart of their story. Most recently, their individual and collective efforts have focused on such crucial issues as gun violence against children, the rights and organizing efforts of strawberry pickers in California, homelessness and world hunger. “We’ve always been involved with issues that deal with the fundamental human rights of people, whether that means the right to political freedom or the right to breathe air that’s clean,” Travers points out.
An article by music writer Deborah Wilker on April 7, 1988 describes their social activism in the 1980s:
The group is keenly aware that mainstream radio is no longer the welcoming medium it once was to their folk music and other forms of subdued pop. For that reason, along with their desire to continue raising political and social awareness on a host of popular and unpopular causes, Peter, Paul and Mary are on the road for at least 60 concert performances each year.
They also participate in an ongoing stream of political benefits, charitable fund-raisers for New York`s homeless and hungry, fact-finding missions to South Korea, El Salvador, Moscow and Manilla, and demonstrations against apartheid, nuclear arms and U.S. intervention in Central America. For Travers — the most politically vocal of the three — there is also an occasional editorial to be written for The New York Times, among other daily newspapers, and letters to the Soviet government on behalf of Russian Jews who want to leave that country.
“Having musical spokespeople for a given concern — whether it`s an album like We are the World or a concert like Live Aid — is sometimes helpful, particularly when you have a poet or a musician to make a statement,“ said Paul Stookey, during a recent telephone interview.
Steve Morse of the Boston Globe wrote an article in August 28, 1992 that tells of their activism in the 1990s:
The enduring folk singers are fighting for everything from Rodney King`s civil rights and women`s abortion rights, to the presidential candidacy of Bill Clinton.
Now in their 31st year, Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers still call themselves “Seeger`s raiders,“ a term coined for the social activists following in the footsteps of folk luminary Pete Seeger. Activism has always coursed through the music of the trio, who are “as committed and active as ever,“ Peter Yarrow said in a recent phone chat from Denver.
“When we sing our songs now, there`s this fresh wind of hope blowing through the air,“ Yarrow said. “When we sing a song like `Blowin` in the Wind` or `If I Had a Hammer,` we sense a rejuvenated energy that`s part of the songs and part of what we`re feeling. And when we sing `Pastures of Plenty,` a fairly new song in our repertoire that was written by Woody Guthrie and refers to the Depression period and migrant workers-all too familiar in our time as well-we sing it with a new hope and passion.
“Peter, Paul & Mary, of course, also sing love songs and children`s songs and ballads and story songs. But what`s wonderful is to feel the relevance of our performances with a new kind of active connection to today`s events. Not to bemoan the losses of the past, but to celebrate the possibilities of the immediate future.“
Peter, Paul and Mary show the influence that musicians and artists have in changing our society. Many historians argue that artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers have had a greater effect in influencing our culture than political radicals have had in making radical structural changes in our economic and political system. Not many people have read radical political tracts by Jerry Rubin or Stokely Carmichal, but they do know Woody Guthries’ “This Land Is Your Land” or have read John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” or have watched “All In The Family”. I read a review by Sean Wilentz in the New York Review of Books of Michael Kazin’s book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation that points out that creative works helped change attitudes towards race, gender, and cultural assumptions. Wilentz writes:
“Without political power or honor as prophets,” he insists, “leftists still helped to make the United States a more humane society.” They have done so largely outside of conventional politics, building what he calls an evolving “culture of rebellion.”
Alienated novelists, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and songwriters, Kazin argues, as well as muckraking journalists and left-wing historians, have influenced many more Americans than would ever embrace a radical political movement. From Harriet Beecher Stowe to Bruce Springsteen, he finds a persistent radical artistic imagination that he believes has been the left’s mightiest weapon. To understand American radicalism’s humanizing power, and how the left changed the nation, it is less important, in Kazin’s view, to consider how Americans voted than to consider what books and magazines they read, what plays and movies they attended, and what songs they heard and sang.
The point is perceptive even if it is not especially novel: recall Abraham Lincoln’s famous if apocryphal remark to Stowe calling her the little woman who wrote the book that started the great Civil War. Kazin is at his most effective when he discusses the impact of novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or, more ironically, Frank Capra’s populist films of the 1930s and 1940s. Without question, fictional archetypes like Tom Joad or Jefferson Smith have left stronger and more lasting impressions on American perceptions than any radical tract.
Recently, Peter Yarrow performed at the Occupy Wall Street protests last year. Yarrow is starting an initiative called M4SC (Music for Social Change) to encourage and support protest music for a new era of issues. Our country is luck to have Peter, Paul and Mary to continue the folk protest tradition of Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. I end this blog with youtube videos of Peter, Paul and Mary performing in protests and rallies.
Peter, Paul and Mary at the March on Washington 1963
Peter, Paul and Mary at a peace march in Washington DC. on April 24, 1971
Peter, Paul and Mary singing “El Salvador” at the Conspiracy Of Hope Tour (June 15, 1986 Giants Stadium) East Rutherford, NJ
Peter Yarrow and Bethany Yarrow lead a workshop on protest songs
Peter Yarrow in Madison, WI Feb. 26, 2011, supporting the union protests
Peter Yarrow at Occupy Wall Street
Peter, Paul and Mary performing “This Cruel War” in the Andy Williams Show in the 1960s