Folk trio shuns nostalgia for 'now'
Stars and Stripes
TOKYO — Mary Travers shuffled through photographs of '60s-era Peter, Paul and Mary concerts around Japan on the eve of the group's return Tokyo performance, staged last week after more than a 10-year absence.
"Would you look at that!" she gasped, holding up a picture of herself, flanked by Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey.
"Just look at that hemline," she chuckled. "Wow, miniskirts. They're coming back y'know."
And so, apparently, are Peter, Paul and Mary.
The trio started working New York's Greenwich Village in 1961 and topped the charts throughout the decade before their first break-up. They came back together 3½ years ago and now work an easy-going schedule, performing 30-40 times a year.
They still sing most of the favorites, but in spite of all their hits — "If I Had a Hammer," "This Land Is Your Land," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Puff (The Magic Dragon)," and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" to name a few — they don't want to be known as a golden-oldies band, on tour to stir up a few memories.
Peter said, "We are not nostalgia. We have meaning to the audience, we feel ... active in their lives right now, not the past.
"So," he explained, "our association is not an awkward look back ... it's very immediate. Dramatic."
Peter said that success for them now is no longer a matter of big bucks and a huge following, the conventional trappings of stardom.
"We are in a unique performing situation," he said. "We don't need to perform continuously because we don't have those career necessities.
"Success far us now is the special privilege that most artists do not enjoy — on a personal level being able to love, being together, to feel a a great meaning in the association and also to have our individual lives, which are very important to us.
"Now," the Cornell University psychology graduate and former lecturer on folk ballads added, "we don't measure success in terms of numbers, although we are fortunate to be drawing larger crowds now in most cases than we ever did at the height of our career ... its not a matter of how many people we affect, but the quality of the interaction."
Mary said their interaction is international and Peter, Paul and Mary's success in countries outside the United States is due to the unique message that folk music brings to life.
"Music is truly the international language," she said. "So, whatever a particular musical form has to discuss, its discussion is not just with the culture that happens to have invented it. It becomes popular other places because it speaks to another culture.
"And I think there is a very special feeling between any culture and folk music," she said.
Folk manic has became synonymous with social and political movements. Keeping up with issues, Peter, Paul and Mary perform "The Power Song," a pro-solar, anti-nuclear energy tune.
The song is a highlight of their live performances and appears on their new album, "Such Is Love."
Mary said that issues such as the nuclear question and especially the economic crisis could have a profound effect on music.
"We are dangerously close," Mary said, "to a very, very serious economic situation in our country today, the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. Some good music came out of the Depression, but I think it's the hard way to make good music."
And she sees a rough time ahead, at least in one respect
"The social cutbacks are having and will have an effect (in the future)," Mary said. "I can only say that it is my personal belief that these social cutbacks will create a tremendous increase in racism in our country, will further separate the poor ... and will create an enormous backlog of young unemployed which is always, in any society, a dangerous situation."
Paul believes that the times will bring folk music back to the forefront.
"Little by little," he explained, "I think that (folk music) will re-establish itself as the music of the people and will become the music of the country and music of the world because there is no other form of music where the issues are addressed so directly."
But folk music has never really lost its popularity, Paul maintains.
"Music, 10 or 12 years ago, was a hobby and now everybody has a hi-fi system. The numbers of people actively involved in the production and consumption of music has geometrically progressed so that although folk music may not be popular, it has, in numbers, maintained its success."
And Peter, Paul and Mary couldn't be happier about that.