Thursday, September 17, 2009

Homework for Mary

Up early (Robbie the painter due before 8 a.m.) and on with the morning news.

We were expecting it; but it still shocked: the death of Mary. In the end, it seems, the leukemia didn't get her: it was the side-effects of the chemotherapy.

Go to the trio's website for the official tributes. Tomorrow's press will carry more: indeed, even the staid, stodgy Torygraph website offers an obituary and, subsequently, has posted a timeline.

Perhaps, to aid the younger generation, the BBC now can be induced to dig out those original performances, and the documentary on the "folk revival":

Grossman's construct

The fourth original member of PP+M was Albert B. Grossman. Grossman saw the possibilities of commercializing "folk", opened up by the likes of Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio.

This was the moment the baby-boomers hit town: college enrolments were booming -- a plurality of the white population in that key target age-group. This was their music. Joan Baez (another Grossman "asset") was already making a name. Bob Dylan (another one) was coming over the horizon. In creating PP+M Grossman inserted the tall, slender, photogenic blonde between two hirsute, but preppy, guitarists. Travis lived across Macdougal Street from Clarence Hood's Gaslight Cafe, a folk club where Noel [Paul] Stookey was the MC. Stookey, in his turn, had fallen in with the legendary Dave Van Ronk, the "Mayor of MacDougal Street", and traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic Martin. In another club, the Cafe Wha?, also on Macdougal Street, Grossman saw a singer-guitarist, Peter Yarrow, who had graduated from Cornell's psychology classes into a third-level course on English folksong and folklore (a.k.a. "Romp and Stomp"). Yarrow had adapted a lyric composed by Leonard Lipton, one his Cornell friends, and included it (and still does) in his regular songlists, a song everyone allegedly detested, a song no childhood should be without: Puff, the Magic Dragon.

Grossman now had his notion of a trio: an intellectual, a girl (to take the rôle patented by Ronnie Gilbert in The Weavers) and a humourist (as patented by Lou Gottlieb in The Limeliters). And then, after a successful preview when PP+M depped for solo Yarrow at Folk City, with supreme timing and placement, he launched them at the epicenter of cool that was Fred Weintraub's Bitter End in Greenwich Village.

On 29 January 1962, according to Billboard at the time, PP+M signed to the nascent Warner Bros (significantly not the "traditional folk music labels -- Vanguard or Folkways), for an advance of $30,000.

Grossman may have put together his idea of a pop-folk trio: what he bought were three hard-headed, highly-principled, committed liberals. The repertoire was collectively agreed: for example, when Stookey became a convinced Christian, Lemon Tree (their first single) was dropped. The first eponymous album [left] released on 1st March 1962, was the number 1 seller for seven weeks, and was in the charts for a total of 185 weeks. It has been calculated as the 36th top-seller of the all vinyl-mad 1960s.

Hammering out the message

If PP+M were meant to be a straight commercial act, they blew that with their follow-up single. The less-savvy college kids may not have noticed why: their elders certainly should have done.

Back in 1949 Pete Seeger and Lee Hays had come up with The Hammer Song for the "fellow-travelling" People's Songs. The target was the red-baiters, already developing into full MacCarthyites of the late 40s. It didn't help when the song was the cover for Sing Out! magazine's first edition [left]. Although the Weavers had recorded it, in 1949, for the minority Harmony label, it never appeared on any of the commercial recordings they did for Decca. Indeed, they were selective about when and where they performed it.

Largely because of PP+M, for whom it won a 1962 Grammy, If I Had a Hammer quickly became a musical cliché. Yet, as that Newport version above shows, PP+M made it, in live performance, a matter of anger and intent.

The March on Washington

Jumping over a fair bit of history, Blowin' in the Wind (apparently, PP+M's version remains the most commercially-successful of any Dylan song), Puff (which was quickly corrupted by the Vietnam War into one nick-name for a DC3 gunship), the 1963 Newport Festival, any of which could provide a blog entry, let's move on apace to the August, 1963, March on Washington, for which Yarrow was a co-organiser. The two songs the group sang were Hammer and Blowin' in the Wind. They would later also be alongside Martin Luther King at Selma; and remember him at the 1971 anti-war March:


This diatribe has gone on too long already.

A good woman, a true comrade has died. It would be gratifying, here, to throw in some palliative, to make a trite parallel between Garry Trudeau sending off Andy Lippincott to Pet Sounds:

and Mary Travis living to see a Black American President walk down the road, the white dove sleeping in the sand, the mountain washed to the sea ... all on just the spot they belted that song out in 1971 [see the YouTube video above].

And yet, she wouldn't see it that way. Her acerbic tongue (too long silenced on stage) would have snappily told us not to be ridiculous: this is just another cautious, underperforming President, failing to deliver on his mandate. Cue Noel Paul Stookey's tribute:
Witty, politically savvy, she was the master/mistress of the cutting exit line. Once I was attempting to defend Ronald Reagan's educational policy. She interrupted me with "Oh, for heaven's sake, do your homework", turned on her heel, and walked away. Need I say it turned out she was right?

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yourcousin said...

You've been busy. Thanks to my wife "Puff" is already playing in my house incessantly even though my kid is too young to really understand right now (a whopping seven months).

You're spot on with your piece here. "If I Had a Hammer" strikes me as similar to "Old Man River" that was powerful when done by Paul Robeson but denuded of its power/meaning when done by Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra.

My favorite cover of "If I Had a Hammer" was done by Sam Cooke during his album "Live at the Copa". It's true that this is more of a crooner version of the song but I love the idea of a black musician getting a largely middle aged/middle class audience to sing a song about social justice in the early sixties. Those who disparage the album would do well to remember this dynamic and note that instead of ending the concert with his usual "Having a Party" Cook ended it with "Blowin' in the Wind"

Thinking on the last song on your post you may want to check out Jenny Scheisman's cover of the Bob Dylan song "I was Young When I left Home", solid stuff.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Thanks for that, Zach.

I've seen your ups-and-downs on your own blog.

Remember: in life as in driving, even after coffee all morning, and beer all afternoon, the shiny side goes up.

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