“Peter, Paul and Mary are folk singers.” So stated the liner notes to the group’s self-titled 1962 debut album. Today, this declaration seems redundant, because the term “folk music” has come to be virtually interchangeable with the group name, but when the words were written, they were meant less as a stylistic distinction than as a mission statement.
In the decades prior to the ‘60s, through the work of such avatars as Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and Pete Seeger, folk music had become identified with sociopolitical commentary, but the idiom had been forced underground in the Senator Joe McCarthy witch-hunting era of the late ‘50s.
By the time Peter, Paul and Mary arrived on the scene, for the majority of America, folk was viewed merely as a side-bar to pop music which employed acoustic instruments. At this critical historic juncture, with the nation still recovering from the McCarthy era, the Civil Rights Movement taking shape, the Cold War heating up and a nascent spirit of activism in the air, Peter Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey and Mary Travers came together to juxtapose these cross currents and thus to reclaim folk’s potency as a social, cultural and political force. But few at the time could have realized how fervently and pervasively the group’s message of humanity, hope and activism would be embraced.