By Peggy Morehouse
I was five or six years old when I first heard Puff the Magic Dragon in the early sixties sung by the epic folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. The melancholy song about the loss of innocence as we age became one of my favorites along with another one of their greats, The Marvelous Toy. In my early teens I came to realize that Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t just sing songs that delighted children, but were part of an historic movement to bring peace and justice to a troubled world with songs like Blowin in the Wind and Where Have All the Flowers Gone. This trio stayed with me as I introduced their music and stories of social change to my own sons in the 1990s. Peter, Paul and Mary continue to be part of my world today as I read and sing Puff the Magic Dragon to my kindergarten students, not to mention the gig space they occupy on my iPod.
You can imagine my excitement when I met two of the three musicians at an intimate gathering at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont on November 24. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey told stories, sang, goofed around, and talked about their new book, Peter, Paul and Mary-Fifty Years of Music and Life. A crowd that seemed to range from 6-months to ninety-years-old enthusiastically greeted the musicians as they entered the children’s section on the second floor. Peter and Paul started the evening by singing Garden Song with a simple yet compelling message: “…Mother Earth will make you strong if you give her love and care…”
It wasn’t long before Mary Travers, who passed away in 2009, was recognized. Peter and Paul expressed how much they miss her, yet always feel her presence when they perform. Paul relayed, “Mary is here as much as she’s not here.” Peter added, “We hear her voice and know it’s real because audience members have told us they hear her too.” Although Mary wasn’t involved in writing their new book, Peter said, “The three of us blended as we walked through the pages.” They then paid tribute to her by asking the audience to sing Leaving on a Jet Plane with them.
As the evening progressed, Peter and Paul entertained with passion and conviction in their strong, flavorful voices. Still committed to social justice, Peter sang Listen Mr. Bigot with the reprise, “The foreigners that you hate are the very same people that made America great.” He made a point of saying, “The root cause of all these issues is lack of empathy; compassion.” They both continue to back up their words with support for initiatives related to the environment, farming, race and religious freedom, just to name a few. Peter also founded Operation Respect, a nonprofit that develops non-bullying curriculum. Paul assigned all royalties from The Wedding Song to the Public Domain Foundation (Music2Life), which has donated millions to charities around the world. According to their book, Peter, Paul and Mary-Fifty Years in Music and Life, their commitment to social justice ignited as they performed at Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963:
“As for our participation, we were three young people in our twenties who had known popularity for less than two years, but when we sang ‘Blowin in the Wind’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ that day, it changed the way we saw the world…and our role in it.”
A highlight of their performance at Northshire was when they invited the children to come up front and sing Puff the Magic Dragon. It was evident that this song is still alive and well as the children sang the lyrics flawlessly when it was their turn at the microphone.
Peter asked one young girl where she had learned the words and she simply replied, “I just know it.” With a look of satisfaction Peter said, “You just made me so proud.”
After a hand-clapping, sing along of If I Had a Hammar, it was downstairs for the book signing where fans enjoyed some conversation and laughs with Peter and Paul.
I can’t leave this post without sharing a video of Puff the Magic Dragon with you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! ~ Peggy and Susanne