Peter, Paul & Mary
Peter, Paul & Mary
Release Date: May 7th, 1962
Words by: Whaley Big Jesus
June 1st, 2012
Peter, Paul & Mary were a trio of folksters who were handpicked and assembled by manager, Albert Grossman, from the hordes of vagrants residing in Greenwich Village in the early 60's. Grossman – who later managed Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin – was a business man. A man who realised the swelling interest in American folk music and initially acted to capitalise upon that by putting together Peter, Paul & Mary. He was notoriously very controlling of the group, as pointed out in the documentary No Direction Home by John Cohen from New York band, The New Lost City Ramblers. In the film, Cohen talks about how Grossman prevented Mary Travers from going out in the sun as he wanted her to retain the fair skinned appearance of an 'innocent youth'.According to Cohen, instances such as this largely symbolised the detachment of the folk genre from it's founding in the concept of communal idealism, and instead pushed it towards commercialism – a realm usually reserved for pop music.
So then, folk music arguably became commercialised through the founding of Peter, Paul & Mary, but the question to be answered here is, what did this mean for their debut self-titled LP?
Can we hear the bean counters clicking away in the background, and can we feel that icky sense of artificiality behind the music? Or was the group simply blessed with the arrival of commercial interest in the folk scene, which in turn enabled the genuine quality of their music to reach a far wider audience?
Yes, is the answer to both questions in equal measure.
There is both quality and manufactured sentiment here. Liveliness and staleness. Ick and awe. Put simply, it would be fair to say that Peter, Paul & Mary walked a very fine line.
Despite these contradictions throughout however, the one thing that cannot be taken away from the group is the striking tonal quality that shines through when the three voices harmonise. The vocalists' are perfectly suited for one another in terms of range coverage, and this is no more evident than on opener, 'Early In the Morning'. It's one of the standout tracks on the album due to the energetic dynamics that unfold throughout between the three voices. Noel 'Paul' Stookey's voice flies high in it's own right here, but the way in which it is supported and complimented by Travers and Yarrow really takes the composition to another level.
'If I Had My Way' is another fine example of the power of these three voices combined. The tune bops along with clean and genuine feeling, and the frequency spectrum that is covered by the collective vocal, almost sounds as if it defies what was logistically possibly in terms of recording – given the limitations of multi-tracking technology at the time. The sound is lush and wide and lively, without sounding derived. And perhaps if Peter, Paul & Mary had been able to simply maintain these qualities throughout their body of work, rather than straying into the perilous territory of clean homogeny; their credibility may have never been called into question.
'Cleanness' is perhaps the best adjective in defining both the good and bad elements of this record. A cleanness of sound, of lyric, and of intent. The visceral quality of the Greenwich village folk scene at the time has been largely swept under the rug here, and the former ragamuffins have been instead tidied up and readied for a marketing push. Peter, Paul & Mary aims to please the affluent as much as it does the hard-doer – as made clear by a track-listing that includes both Pete Seeger's working class anthem, 'If I Had A Hammer'; as well as what sounds like a Sesame Street-esque nursery rhyme in, 'It's Raining'.
Hence, despite the excellence of certain tracks, it's this resonant aim to please everyone rather than simply sticking to a consistent aesthetic and ethos that limits the appeal of this record. There are incredible moments, but there are also some terribly cringe worthy ones, and this mesh of contradictions' serves to tarnish the quality of the album as a whole.