11 September 2018

To a question in my sleep

Thoreau writes “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where?” I think Thoreau is referring to his dreams of that night. In my dream last night, a question was put to me. Since at least fifty-five years ago, I have listened to the music of Peter, Paul and Mary. For awhile I attended their public performances, and once I remember (I think I remember!) traveling to a venue in New Hampshire where I sat on the floor not thirty feet away from the trio and my adored Mary (z”l) whose flung long, blond hair spoke of passion to my yet repressed bourgeois energies. The question my dream put to me wondered what it was about Peter, Paul and Mary that so attracted me that their music changed my life. Thoreau says he awoke to an answered question, but I turned to my writing to work through some answer.
            Years ago, I was privileged to introduce Peter Yarrow at a fundraising event. Then I think I approached this topic of why Peter, Paul, and Mary. Then I said that the first song I ever played on a juke box was ‘This Train,’ a song from Peter Paul and Mary’s first album —then, I was old enough not to remember if I put into the machine a nickel or a dime. Then I wondered where I had first heard that song, how it originally became familiar to me, and why it had attracted me. That event occured in about 1962, but I am also old enough now not to remember exactly what year that was exactly--but I imagine I must have been about fifteen. Then I said, I had earlier spent some time worrying about the tragic fate of Tom Dooley as expressed by the Kingston Trio, and had anguished over the tragic lot of a man named Charlie who for lack of an extra nickel for the fare increase couldn’t get off of the train on an increasingly expensive Boston subway. I am aghast at the expense of subway fare in New York City these days: back then (a typical phrase of older people) entry to the underground cost twenty-five cents for a ride down to Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village! In their music and by their presence, Peter Paul and Mary helped open my consciousness to the responsibilities of social activism and social justice. The first album I had ever purchased was Peter Paul and Mary’s first album. I felt that their work I ought to have readily accessible. It was on that piece of vinyl that I heard for the first time the anthemic songs “If I had a Hammer” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone.” They led me to Pete Seeger and the burgeoning folk music era. I spent considerable time in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village: see Inside Llewyn David and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a taste of the scene. Then, I wanted to become a beatnik. I wore black turtleneck sweaters and dungarees. In that time of bubble gum music, of “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy,” Peter Paul and Mary stood on the cover of that album against a red brick wall that I knew to be in my beloved Greenwich Village, and sang of Sorrow and Justice, and repairing the world if we only had our way. They drew me and many others like me into the cause: the politics were ripe for such movement, and I would spend my nickels and dimes and energies proselytizing and marching and singing those songs of explicit and implicit protest. Peter, Paul and Mary allowed me to listen in the company of my parents to Bob Dylan’s notice that it was their responsibility to get out of our way because they didn’t understand us, even as Peter’s song, “Day is Done,” comforted us that our parents if they so chose could join with us in the struggle. I learned from Peter, Paul and Mary more about metaphor than I did from Ms. Bueschel, my ninth grade English teacher. When they sang the traditional folk ballad, ‘The Cruel War,” we knew what war they were talking about; when they sang the Weavers’ spirited folk song, ‘Wasn’t that a Time” we knew to which Revolution they were referring. Even poor Puff the Magic Dragon was dragged in unwittingly and unwillingly as an element in the secret code of our burgeoning drug culture,” Peter, Paul and Mary taught us about the struggle and stayed with us through it. There was no turning back. 
            Then I said that later we went with ourchildren to hear Peter Paul and Mary at Northrup Auditorium here in Minneapolis. They remembered to us that many of us who had listened to them in the beginning had now brought our children to listen with them to them again. Some of us were even older. And Peter remembered to all of us the prayer, “We Shall Overcome” and we–we and our children--sang together. 
            Some would argue that Peter, Paul and Mary were too commercially marketed and by this process were made socially acceptable and therefore, too homogenized. Unlike Bob Dylan their voices were melodic and pleasant. Peter and Paul wore suits and ties and Mary always donned a dress. It was accused that whatever anger they expressed was too muted behind their stage presence and the controlled quality of their honeyed harmonies to effect action. But to answer my dream, Peter, Paul and Mary let this bourgeois teen communicate my angst to my parents even if they didn’t know (or didn’t let on) that they were being addressed. Young children at the heder are taught their alphabet by licking honey from the slate on which the letters were written: thus, learning becomes sweet. Peter, Paul and Mary were the honey that sweetened the rebellion of this repressed bourgeois teen and opened the world for me. Maybe they were the velvet cloaking to my revolution.