By Bruce Sylvester
Peter, Paul and Mary – like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger – embodied the 60s folk revival's altruism and optimism. Newport Folk Festival was the movement's annual gathering of the tribe. Peter, Paul and Mary at Newport 1963-65 (a one-hour DVD on Shout! Factory whose music is also separately available on CD) is a movie not only about music but also – to paraphrase their pop hit “If I Had a Hammer – about justice, freedom, and love between the brothers and sisters all over this land. Their covers of Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “When the Ship Comes In” conveyed the era's pending storm. Murray Lerner's camera captured plenty of close-ups of their faces, especially Mary's, with her trademark bangs and long blond hair. The soothing warmth of her contralto was singular within the era's folk scene.
In a sense, PPM were second-generation Weavers, here redoing their American history ballad “Wasn't That a Time.” The DVD's song list represents their breadth: traditional ballads (“Hangman”) and Dylan covers such as anthemic “Blowin' in the Wind” plus black gospel and blues. Gangster-in-love tale “Betty & Dupree” proves how well they did acoustic rock. Mary's playful on a soundcheck of “San Francisco Bay Blues. Dueting with Baez, Peter turns “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” (another song recorded earlier by The Weavers) into goofy fun.
The DVD (but not the CD) places comments by surviving members Peter and Paul in the midst of songs. (Mary died of leukemia in 2009.) Peter says that “If I Had My Way” is in once sense biblical and in another sense about tearing down the walls of injustice.
As for his solo performance of “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” he remarks, “People come up to me and ask … why the song has lasted so long. 'Why do our kids and grandkids know it?' And I tell them it's because it's not about a dragon. It's about a dragon and a little boy that love each other very much. And at a certain point, the little boy has to grow up. So it's about the innocence of childhood lost.”
In a sense, this superb film takes us back to a time before a nationwide innocence was lost. It closes with one festival's finale, the magnificent Odetta powerfully leading the performers on “Come Go with Me to That Land.” If only we could.
PS: If you're curious about rustic yet sophisticated recent reinterpretations of PPM songs, look for husband-wife team Bethany and Rufus, with cellist Rufus Cappadochia backing Peter's daughter Bethany Yarrow. They're unique and phenomenal but not very well known.