November 9, 2009
8 Art Lessons from Peter, Paul and Mary
|Memorial portrait of Mary Travers. Susan K Donley, 2009. Colored pencil on toned paper. ©2009 Susan K Donley|
The real grief I felt when I learned that Mary Travers had died on September 16 caught me by surprise. A few days later, I confessed to a couple of friends that I felt silly still feeling a strong sense of loss about someone I never knew. “How can you say you never knew Mary when you’ve been listening to her music for 45 years? Of course, you knew her — you just never met her!” my friend replied. Of course! If an artist reveals a piece of herself with every piece or performance, which I believe, I did get to know the gifted artist Mary Travers bit by bit with every song she sang.
Since getting “permission” to grieve, I’ve been pondering this peculiar relationship with a friend I never met and her trio-mates in Peter, Paul and Mary. In honor of today’s official memorial service honoring Mary Travers in New York, I offer memories of my PPM history and some of the insights I’ve gained in the last month as I’ve indulged in watching vintage PPM performances and interviews on YouTube. It’s my personal tribute to a group that has influenced me more than I realized.
Fan for forty-five years
I’m old enough to remember PPM’s earliest hits playing on the AM radio we listened to getting ready for school in the morning. I reached the age of wanting my own transistor radio, buying records, and other rites of passage into 1960s adolescence in 1964 when Beatlemania hit. That’s when I got my first album “Meet the Beatles”, soon after I added Herman’s Hermits.
The following year, in seventh grade, I got a guitar for Christmas! A few lessons at the Y and I was ready to join some of the neighbor girls to sing together just for the fun of it (though of course we planned to start a group if we got good enough!). What should we sing? Somebody had the chords for “Well, Well, Well” and “Oh Sinner Man”. They pulled out their parents’ Peter, Paul and Mary albums and we listened, sang along, then sang them ourselves with a couple of guitars and a tambourine. OK, so we didn’t sound JUST like PPM, but we thought we sounded pretty good! And who cares? We were having fun and we were making music ourselves, not just listening to it.
I got the big PPM songbook and practiced that guitar like crazy. I couldn’t read music, so I borrowed the albums from my friends to learn the songs. I bought my first PPM album “A Song Will Rise” and learned to sing harmony. Thankfully, Mary was an alto, just like me — I could never sing along with Joan Baez!
By the time “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” came out, I was a bona fide fan of PPM, as well as many of the folk rockers of the time: Mamas and Papas, Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Donovan, et al. I went to my first PPM concert in about 1968 and was blown away that all that music could come from three people, two guitars, and a bass (our little group didn’t do nearly so well with five voices, three guitars!)! And they invited us all to sing along with them. I was hooked — for life, as it turns out! I’ve seen them live about five times since then, and never ceased to be amazed at the energy of the performance, how much they enjoyed what they were doing, and the obvious affection they had for each other.
Contrary to the concerns of the folk music purists who looked askance at PPM’s styling of traditional music for the “pop market”, I became a life-long fan of folk and roots music, delving deeper into the traditions that inspired the songs I sang along with. My iPod spans 300 years of American music!
My other career as an arts and museum educator often dealt with folklife and traditional arts in the classroom. Several years ago, I finished a huge, multi-year curriculum project called Voices Across Time: American History through Music for the Center for American Music. Somehow, I don’t think this would have happened if I had stuck with Herman’s Hermits!
8 art lessons from a trio of musicians
In the last few weeks, I’ve come to see parallels between the beliefs behind my own professional art (now visual art, not music, to everyone’s relief) and Peter, Paul and Mary’s work and philosophies over an incredible 50-year career. I pulled together eight lessons anyone in the arts can stand to learn from Peter, Paul and Mary:
1. Art is for everyone, not just the elite
The arts do not belong in an arts ghetto of professional artists, critics, and collectors. Art can and should be accessible to everyone! That doesn’t mean everyone must like the same kind of art, in fact, it means just the opposite: If art is for everyone, than it must be as diverse as possible. It is indefensible to say something isn’t art because it deals with a certain subject matter (say pet portraits or “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog”) or medium (say colored pencil or electric guitar).
Mary once remarked that she wasn’t worried that folk music isn’t on the radio much anymore, because it is alive and well around campfires. Personally, I don’t worry much about gallery representation: I’d rather have my art hanging in someone’s living room.
2. Artists aren’t in competition with each other
Peter, Paul and Mary boosted the careers of Bob Dylan, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro and other young songwriters by bringing their songs onto the pop charts. In a 1968 interview, Mary took on a reporter who kept asking her if the Mamas and Papas, Byrds, and other folk rockers were eroding PPM’s audience: “[paraphrased] I don’t pay any attention to the numbers — that’s our manager’s job. My job is to create art. I’m not in competition with anyone.”
I’ve often wondered why non-artists think artists are in competition. I’m friends with several other portrait artists, including those doing pets. Our styles are so different that we appeal to different people. The more diversity in art or music, the more appealing to a wider audience, expanding the market for all art. A rising tide lifts all boats!
3. Do what you love with people you love — others will go along for the joyride
Peter, Paul and Mary’s sheer joy of singing with each other was infectious.
Most groups I’ve seen perform face the audience. PPM usually face each other, but ironically, the audience feels included rather than excluded. As Mary tells it in one interview, – her contribution to the trio included “an ability to connect with them emotionally and focus our attention on having a musical conversation. I believe that if we can have that conversation, then the audience will feel included.” And indeed, they do!
4. The arts aren’t spectator sports
Attending a PPM concert was very different from most. Don’t expect to sit back and wait to be sung to. From the very first song, you will be enlisted to sing, clap, and stomp along. Unfortunately, most everywhere else, public singing has given way to private, passive iPod listening via earbuds.
One of the worst side effects of the communication technologies of the 20th century is the polarizing of stars and public, artists and audiences. People have come to think of the arts as something to consume, not something to create. In the 19th century, if you wanted music, you created it yourself with family and friends. You made your own quilts, painted your own china.
As an art educator, my mission was to roll back the notion that you needed talent to make art. Really, you only need an idea to express visually and some basic practice using line, shape, color and the other visual tools. Everyone should feel as comfortable sketching out an idea as they do tapping out an email. That almost no one does is a great failing of arts education, in my opinion.
5. Beautiful art doesn’t require fancy tools
PPM were the real deal, real musicians who didn’t need fancy recording studios to make their full sound. In fact, they were better in person when they could feed off the enthusiasm of the audience who could see all this music came from just three voices, two guitars, and a bass. A prime example is video from around 1968, where Peter, Paul and Mary perform “If I Had my Way” — just three voices and one guitar.
Likewise, my favorite medium is plain old graphite on paper. Without the distraction of color, I can better focus attention on my subject’s expression and recreate textures that make seem touchable. All with the humble pencil.
6. Honing your craft matters
Of course, the simpler the means, the more skill and work required to make it work! PPM notoriously argued hours over each song’s arrangement and rehearsed it to perfection before performing it publicly.
Likewise, many more hours go into a drawing than most people can imagine wielding a pencil. But only practice can make artists comfortable enough to relax and perform their best. No amount of inborn talent can bloom without hours of training and rehearsal.
7. Shrug off the critics, stay true to your vision: Art can make a difference
If any of the dismissive purists of any persuasion doubts PPM’s impact, consider that top hits of 1962 included “Johnny Angel” and “Louie, Louie”. Then imagine “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” hitting the airwaves! In that context, I doubt if the harmonies sounded saccharin or the lyrics simplistically sing-along (criticisms of PPM I’ve read recently from writers who should know better than to judge art forms outside of their context).
PPM’s carefully constructed arrangements drove their songs’ messages home while you sang along with the radio. What role did “sing-along” play in winning popular support for civil rights in the 1960s? When you sing along with Mary’s passionate delivery of the lines “It’s the hammer of JUSTICE! It’s the bell of FREE-EE-DOM! It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land!” how can you fail to grasp the importance of justice, freedom, and love for everyone? I know I did! We sang it every single week at the Young Life group I attended (where I eventually played guitar and lead the singing). Their songs’ singability made them much more effective agents of change than music meant just for listening.
8. Your life and your art are of one piece
The most important lesson of all: Art grows out of your values. Live your message if you want it to be heard. Witness the passion of these singer-activists as they sing their pro-hope, anti-Apartheid song “No Easy Walk to Freedom” at a rally in 1986:
If you would like to explore further the messages-through-song of this exceptional trio, treat yourself and explore performances throughout their career captured on video over nearly 50 years. Sadly, we’ll never see and hear them together again in person, but we can relive the experience here.
You will be sorely missed, but you’ve surely given enough for one life and then some. Be at peace.