Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t revolutionize folk music the way Bob Dylan did. Dylan’s songwriting fundamentally altered and then ultimately transcended the folk idiom itself, while Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t even write their own material. They were good-looking, crowd-pleasing performers first and foremost—hand-selected and molded for success by a Greenwich Village impresario named Albert Grossman. Yet in their good-looking, crowd-pleasing way, Peter, Paul and Mary helped make Dylan’s revolution possible, both by popularizing his songs and by proving the commercial potential of “serious” folk music in doing so. They took a decisive step on their path to success on January 29, 1962, when they signed their first recording contract with Warner Bros.—the label they still call home nearly half a century later.
Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers ran in the same Greenwich Village circles, but had never performed together before Albert Grossman came along. Grossman, a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival, was a controversial figure on the New York folk scene—a man openly seeking to commercialize a movement that wore its self-serious leftist political roots on its sleeve. Grossman recognized commercial potential in the “message songs” he was hearing in famous Village venues like Gerde’s Folk City, if only he could combine the music of brilliant songwriters like Pete Seeger with the non-threatening appeal of singers like the Kingston Trio.
Pete Seeger’s former group, the Weavers, had enjoyed enormous success in the early-1950s with hits like “Goodnight Irene,” until their leftist background derailed their career during the Red Scare. The downfall of the Weavers led to a split within the nascent folk revival—a split between political folk that had no chance for commercial success and entertaining folk that was utterly apolitical. Grossman believed that he could span that divide with a group whose youthful good looks and non-threatening demeanor would make subtly political folk music acceptable within the popular mainstream. Enter Peter, Paul and Mary and songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” both from their debut album in 1962. In 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary would release their biggest hit ever: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” written by a new client of Grossman’s named Bob Dylan. It was the first sample of Dylan’s work that most of the world would ever hear.
Mary Travers passed away in 2009.