Fifty Years On

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I recently broke down and bought my partner a flatscreen TV for our house in the Berkshires. We decided to test its Web surfing features: the first thing we watched was a 1965 BBC recording of a concert by Peter, Paul and Mary. 

As someone attuned to the vicissitudes of TLDW, I won’t implore you to watch the whole thing – if you jump to 27:20 and spend five minutes, you’ll see their renditions of “Early in the Morning” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and get a taste of what’s on offer.

What shaped you as a person? What do you value? What makes you happy? What hits you in the solar plexus? For me, the answer to all four of these foundational, bedrock questions can be found in this performance. Watching it moves and inspires me across multiple dimensions:

Musicianship. The entire concert flows from two guitars, a few microphones, an upright bass, and three voices. As an amateur musician who grew up singing and playing with my siblings in my parents’ living room, I understand the incredible degree of vulnerability, exposure, and courage inherent in this kind of music-making. The intimacy, the weaving together of the stirring three-part harmonies, the dynamic range, and the pure joy and authenticity of their voices is extremely powerful. (In comparison, a show like The Voice, with its unrelenting bombast, contrived narratives, narcissistic judges, and spectacularly overproduced musical numbers feels like a monumental exercise in cynicism and a colossal waste of time.)

History. From the vintage mid-1960s set design and the meek politeness of the London audience to the idealism of the times, the concert is a timepiece in many respects. Yet in the quality of the performance, the simplicity of the production values, and the conviction of the musicians, one finds a connection to some of music’s most awesome powers – giving voice to the marginalized, building community, and advancing the culture, to name a few. PP&M’s commitment to social justice was also tangible and genuine – for example, they performed at the historic 1963 March on Washington:

Identity. As a child, PP&M were one of the first groups I was ever exposed to (courtesy of my older siblings). My love of music, my belief in human rights, even my karaoke-loving proclivities – fifty years on, many of the motifs that define my life can be traced to those recordings.

I often think about what it means to grow older gracefully – learning from the past without living in it. (I recently coined the term “obsolescent” – the middle-aged equivalent of “adolescent.”) One of my friends and colleagues recently wrote a book about relevance: for my part, the notion of avoiding irrelevance – or embracing its inevitability – occupies my mind to an increasing degree. I’d like to believe that, paradoxically, one of the best ways to situate oneself in relation to an evolving cultural (and professional) landscape is by acknowledging and celebrating the forces that formed you – and that continue to engage and delight you over time. 

File under Peter Paul and Mary, History, Music

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