April 28, 2010
Posted: 02:58 PM ET
THE LEGENDARY FOLK GROUP PETER, PAUL AND MARY RECENTLY LOST ONE OF THEIR OWN. MARY TRAVERS PASSED AWAY IN SEPTEMBER. IN THIS LKL WEB EXCLUSIVE, PETER AND PAUL TALK ABOUT LIFE WITHOUT MARY, THEIR MUSIC, AND WHY THEIR NEW ALBUM, "PETER, PAUL AND MARY WITH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: THE PRAGUE SESSIONS," MEANS SO MUCH TO THEM.
By Quinn Brown
It's hard to understate the importance and impact of folk music. What started with Woody Guthrie and then was popularized by New York's Greenwich Village scene in the ‘60’s (and its luminaries including Pete Seeger, Karen Dalton, and Bob Dylan), echoes to this day with any artist that picks up an instrument and sings something besides "baby, please don't go."
Folk music is defiant, topical, rousing, poetic. Its influence reached the likes of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Beatles, Public Enemy, Iggy Pop, Joni Mitchell, Bono, and countless others.
As pervasive as the music is, it may never have reached the masses if not for Peter Yarrow, Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers - Peter, Paul and Mary. For those who could not handle the lo-fi recordings of Guthrie or the aural snarl of Dylan, the folk trio was more than just palatable. Their three-part harmony was a symphony of voice (and a lone acoustic guitar). And the masses took notice.
So it is fitting that the last testament of the folk legends ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone", "Puff the Magic Dragon", "Leaving on a Jet Plane") is Peter, Paul and Mary with Symphony Orchestra: The Prague Sessions (Rhino Records). Over their five-decade career, the group performed with an orchestra around 30 times and, as Yarrow says, "Those were special to Mary. She had a strong feeling about those concerts."
Mary Travers passed away September 16, 2009 due to complications from chemotherapy for treatment of leukemia. The trio and longtime collaborator Robert DeCormier spent the final years of Travers' life compiling 14 live stage performances and enlisting the Czech Symphony orchestra to bring her final dream to fruition. The result is a record of soaring sounds– voices and strings that swell to the point where the songs aren't folk so much as they are hymns. "This feels like the last page of the photo album. It's honoring Mary and the importance of the music we shared," says Stookey.
Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey sat down with CNN to discuss the symphony project, Mary Travers' impact on their lives and her final days, and performing as a duo.
LKL Blog: The origins of the new album went back many years?
Peter: It was a part of our history as an extension. There was a part of our history that had not been shared. It was very special to Mary and to all of us because there was a certain kind of musical exhilaration and passion in our performances when we would perform with the symphony orchestra. These arrangements, which were done by Bob DeCormier, were the closest to it–with my objective mind making the comparison–like Puccini wrote the score. It's just characterization between the orchestra and the singers. And that gives you another sense of the dimension and the passion because it’s really well written. If it's not, it's really wrong because with folk music it has to be really right for it to work in the context with being united as you sing.
Paul: Little-by-little, we had 5 or 6 songs that we did with the symphonies. We would add new ones each year. So about 5 years ago, just before Mary was diagnosed with leukemia, we all said, “You know we should really take these songs out and, surrounded by these beautiful orchestrations, record them.” And everyone was up for that idea. We had performed 25 to 30 times with symphony orchestras over the past 25 years. We had never recorded these tunes. And now they have all come together, albeit a bit unofficially, but with the excitement of live performance of the trio and with the beautiful orchestrations.
Unfortunately, Mary’s circumstance became more and more severe. So in the later days of Mary’s life we talked about sending our tracks that we had performed. We sent tracks to Czechoslovakia with our musical director. So he went over with tracks that we recorded from live concerts and the late 90s and early sets. And the interesting thing about those tracks that over the period of 40 years the arrangements for even the classic tunes like "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "Where have all the flowers gone" or "This Land", had changed considerably.
Peter: [The album is] one of the things that we just never attended to but something that was very precious to us, and particularly to Mary. She just had a very strong feeling about those concerts. They would always really inspire her.
LKL Blog: Did you find that to be a pretty easy marriage? The folk based music and the orchestra?
Paul: Ordinarily I would not. I would be very critical of anyone attempting to do this, but Bob DeCormier's background is folk music. And he has just been involved in folk music from the ground level up. So his trick for the folk music is not to over-power it but to stand behind it and make it more visible. A large wave and sail all in one.
Peter: There’s only a few people who can do it. He was a musical director and he did it with a very in-depth understanding of the music. Most orchestrations done for folk are really wrong. They are distracting and kill the intimacy of it. And this album has none of that. Many people feel it’s musically the richest album we’ve ever done.
LKL Blog: Regarding mary, were you able to be with her before she passed?
Paul: Oh yes. In the later days I would say every two weeks you would find Peter and I at Mary's house and, in all honesty, as she was dealing with her circumstance there was a gentleness that just infused from her and an awareness that life was very precious and that spread to her friends. She had many of them around her.
Peter: Paul and I were there for most of the day her last day. And I spent time with her and everybody else. It was a small group. Very shortly thereafter we had the memorial service and the burial. We had a celebration of her life, with over 30 people that remembered her and paid tribute to her. It was a most amazing gathering.
LKL Blog: What did she mean to Peter, Paul and Mary musically, personally and otherwise?
Paul: Wow. That’s a major question because frankly you’re asking a tree to come out of the forest. The overall impact of Peter, Paul and Mary was greater than the sum of its parts. There was synergy that she drew from Peter and I.
There was the entire issue of feminism, and she was one of the leading images. By declaring her intelligence and sensitivity she, I think, elevated the awareness of the power of perception of women. She was the stronger voice of all three of us. It was amazing that to us we became such a family of vocalists, which is the only way to describe it. Mary contributed an edginess and strong voice, but also the immediacy of our passion by being very flexible with her voice. She had an amazing range.
Peter: When we were on stage we called upon the best of ourselves, and each other, to share the best that we could be. Not just musically but in human terms. And that was the details of the group. That’s what we did. And that’s the way we embraced each other.
LKL Blog: Has it been difficult to perform as a duo?
Peter: We continue. It’s different but it must be done. It’s not a matter of having a life and then that life being over, it’s a matter of the resonance of the value of what’s been said. It continues.
Paul: Recently, I said [to Peter] "I really enjoy talking to you." He said, "Don’t you know this is the way we’re breathing." I thought wow that’s true. I just teared up. I realized the truth of it.
LKL Blog: Your group played at the historic March on Washington in 1963 that featured Martin Luther King Jr. What did you make of the scene at the inauguration last year?
Paul: The victory of Obama psychologically and metaphorically liberated, celebrated all people, and not just the black. And so in Washington, everyone was forthcoming, genuinely happy in sharing their life and their life with other people. It was the closest thing I’ve seen to the kind of affection people had in the ‘60’s.
Peter: We have been doing what we’ve been doing for a long time. We see the actual inauguration on television. We can say we’ve participated in some way. To bring testimony to our presence on the most private of levels, and the most public of levels. That is the legacy carried on. We carry the legacy of what we’ve experienced as Peter Paul and Mary. Not to reminisce, but to recreate. And that’s what the future holds for me and Paul and everyone who is touched by that era, by that music that idealism, and by extraordinary times of great opportunity.
From around the web
Go Behind The Scenes
LARRY KING LIVE'S Emmy-winning Senior Executive Producer Wendy Walker knows what it takes to make a great story.
With anecdotes, provocative emails, scandals, show transcripts and insights into Walker's long working relationship with Larry King, her new book PRODUCER issues readers an invitation to listen in on the most intriguing conversations on the planet.