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Book review: Peter, Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life
by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, Mary Travers
Charlesbridge

Delayed for two years, this book is the first account of the American folk trio to be told by its members.

Full of never-before-seen pictures and mementos, the 140-page LP-sized volume is worth the wait for fans and enthusiasts of the turbulent 1960s and beyond.

Although the trio lost Mary Travers - to leukaemia, aged 72 - in 2009, her voice is present throughout this candid narrative and she comes across as the dominant member. But, like many of their songs that perfectly blend their harmonies, the book presents a consensus view and, as the surviving members write in the preface, "you will not know who wrote what".

The book tells the story of the group from their modest origins in Greenwich Village in New York City, and how they worked their way up, in just a year, to sing for the president and first lady in 1962. Their dialogue with John F. Kennedy over the protest song If I Had a Hammer makes for fascinating reading, and is accompanied by a reprint of JFK's signed thank-you note.

The story then fast-forwards to November 23, 1963, when the trio cancelled a concert in Dallas, Texas: it was the day after Kennedy was assassinated.

The civil rights movement shaped the trio and "the war in Vietnam sharpened our perspectives as activists and advocates with a new, and frequently painful, awareness", the members recall in the book. They provide a live account of the famous March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jnr delivered his "I have a dream" speech. There, the three performed Blowin' in the Wind, popularising the song and its author, Bob Dylan.

The book provides many behind-the-scenes insights which help explain the way the group made their music. Their commercial recordings, for example, were largely left in their hands without corporate oversight. They credited this to their manager, Albert Grossman, who also represented Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot, whose songs also went into the trio's repertoire.

Lightfoot placed Peter and Paul with their guitars on the left and right, with Mary and the bass in the middle. The microphones were set at a level that allowed the three to sing with direct eye contact. "We sang to the audience but just as frequently we sang to one another," they write.

Their advice for modern-day protesters? "Songs could bypass long-held barriers and go right to the heart of listeners … and might well move some members of the crowd who disagreed with us to consider our point of view."

The book ends with Mary's favourite parting phrase: "To be continued".