Peter, Paul and Mary was formed in 1961 after music manager Albert Grossman auditioned singers on the New York folk scene. The successful auditionees were Peter Yarrow (tenor), Paul Stookey (baritone), and Mary Travers (contralto). With Grossman behind them, the trio soon had a successful eponymous album, which spent 7 weeks at number 1 in the US.
Peter, Paul, and Mary were influenced by The Weavers, known for songs including The Wreck of the John B, Wimoweh, & On Top of Old Smoky. In 1950, The Weavers cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene was the first #1 folk song on the US pop charts. The Weavers ran foul of the “Red Scare” in the US in the 1950. By the early 60s, times were a changing:
That, as you no doubt know, was Peter, Paul, And Mary’s influential cover of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Dylan recorded the song on 9 July 1962 & it was released on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May, 1963). Peter, Paul, & Mary, who shared a manager with Bob Dylan, released Blowing in The Wind as a single. It soon reached #2 on the Billboard pop chart. A week after the album peaked on the charts, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place (28 August ’63)
The March on Washington is most remembered for Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. The massive event also featured performances from musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, The Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary. Called “a group of singers who have come to express in song what this great meeting is all about,” the trio sang Blowin’ in the Wind & Pete Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer. Here is documentary footage of the March on Washington, including comments by the trio:
Interestingly, Bob Dylan released Blowin’ in the Wind in May 1963, but it didn’t chart. Nonetheless the song became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The song was a hit for a number of artists who covered it, from Peter, Paul and Mary to Joan Baez. Jeff Place, curator and senior archivist for Smithsonian Folkways, has speculated that these covers “were palatable to a lot of mainstream America. Dylan might have been a little too edgy, and his voice might have put people off.” It would take two years after his release of Blowin’ in the Wind for Bob Dylan to have a big hit on the US charts; when Like a Rolling Stone hit number two.
In December 1969, Leaving on a Jet Plane, a song composed by John Denver, a friend, became Peter, Paul, and Mary’s only #1 single. It was also their last track in the top 40.
In 1970 the group broke up to explore solo careers, although they did have periodic reunions for significant events (for example, a 1978 concert protesting against nuclear energy). The group reformed for a tour in 1981. It was so successful that they kept on playing concerts and releasing music until Mary Travers death in 2009 from leukaemia. In the same year, Peter, Paul and Mary were inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.