Peter, Paul & Mary didn’t just have hits — they gave voice to a social movement and sang some of the most iconic tunes in pop history, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Yet when asked to name the ingredients of a classic song, Noel (Paul) Stookey — one third of the trio — downplayed the importance of the artist.
“When it speaks to the specific, I think it probably dies a trendy death, but when it speaks to the larger question ... the eternal questions, then I think it becomes a classic,” Stookey told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I think the performer plays a surprisingly small part ... I don’t think it’s the performer, I think it’s the fact that it touches a subsequent generation.”
The Songwriters Hall of Fame may have a quibble with that.
The group is honoring Peter, Paul & Mary — Peter Yarrow, Stookey and Mary Travers — with its Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual induction ceremonies Thursday night. While the trio didn’t write most of their classics, the award acknowledges the musical impact the folk legends have made over their career, which spans more than 40 years.
“I certainly feel very fortunate to still be involved in music,” said Travers, who had a bone-marrow transplant last year during a bout with leukemia. “Of all the arts, it can be as simple as a mother singing to a child, or as complex as a full-blown opera, but it is a medium that reaches out and touches people.”
The Songwriters Hall of Fame honors the faces behind that experience — the songwriters. This year’s crop of inductees are a mixture of famous and anonymous faces: Country star Mac Davis; Thom Bell, an architect of the ‘70s “Philly soul” sound and writer of songs such as “Betcha by Golly Wow”; Will Jennings, whose credits include Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and Eric Clapton’s “Tears from Heaven”; Sylvia Moy, who co-wrote Motown classics such as “My Cherie Amour”; and Hank Cosby, who also co-wrote classics for Motown stars, including “Tears of a Clown.”
The hall is also honoring Kris Kristofferson with its Johnny Mercer Award, while John Mayer will receive its Hal Davis Starlight Award, awarded to gifted young songwriters.
Though Mayer has only been in the spotlight for a few years, the 28-year-old told The Associated Press he’s grown up as a songwriter in that time.
“I remember times in my life when I was playing with vocabulary, even just speaking. it was absolutely just an exhibition game,” he said. “[When] you get kind of older you can do more with less and you can trust the power of the words you do use.”
Defining an era
The power in the words voiced by Peter, Paul & Mary was subtle but strong. The group, created as folk music was beginning to take off in the early 60s, helped to define the era of social upheaval. They were present at some of most defining moments of the boomer generation, including the March on Washington in 1963.
They broke up in the ’70s, but then got back together again, and have steadily performed together for years; Whereas they once performed 200 shows a year, now the group performs about once a month.
“Curiously, the reduced schedule makes it more exciting,” Yarrow told the AP. “It’s like seeing an old friend, hearing an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time.”
The friendship remains strong; whereas many other supergroups from their era long ago splintered and were broken apart by feuds, Stookey says they’ve managed to stay together not only because of the love between them but because of the folk music that continues to tie them together.
“I don’t think we would still be together, honestly, if we weren’t doing folk music,” Stookey said. “Our voices had a blend but I honestly believe beneath the blend was a burning urgency of an ethical message.”
The pure, acoustic folk sound that Peter, Paul & Mary popularized is no longer topping the charts. Still, all three said folk music still continues to thrive.
“It stopped being radio’s darling, but it has always maintained a presence,” said Travers. “There are folk festivals all over the country ... People are singing folk songs around their living rooms and around camp fires.”
And while Yarrow is disenchanted with pop music overall these days — “Music to a large degree has become a big business that is playing to the lowest common denominator,” he lamented — he remains impressed by the social messages espoused by today’s artists. He praised music by Pink and the Dixie Chicks, and is impressed by the commentary hip-hop has to offer.
“Some of them are simply nihilistic commercial trash,” he said. “But many of them are a real cry for humanity ... as well as justice.”