Peter, Paul and Mary

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

This is a story about Peter, Paul and Mary. No, not the great Apostles and beloved Mother of Jesus, but the other Peter, Paul and Mary - you know, the singing trio, the folk group. If you're under a certain age, let's say about thirty, you probably don't know much about Peter, Paul and Mary - known to their groupies as PP&M. But if I mention songs like Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowin in the Wind, If I Had a Hammer, Leaving on a Jet Plane and This Land is Your Land, perhaps you'll feel a little more comfortable!

Peter, Paul and Mary are first of all folk singers, but they're folk singers with a conscience. In the early days they fought against racism as they marched in Selma, Alabama and Washington, DC. They've railed against wars in Vietnam, El Salvador and Iraq and they've sung in support of the homeless, the hungry, laborers and immigrants. In their music they continue to challenge, and sometimes irritate, promoting a world view that is more peaceful, just, loving and liberal.

My personal affection for Peter, Paul and Mary was rekindled recently when, through the courtesy of my Nephew Dan, I attended their concert in Lowell, Mass. Peter, Paul and Mary have been in the public spotlight now for forty-five years, and my affair with them goes back to almost the beginning.

When my family purchased a new "hi-fi system" in the early 1960s, one of the first long-playing, 33 rpm albums I bought was the two-record set, Peter, Paul and Mary in Concert. I still have it.

When I was named a bishop in 1992 I received a handwritten note from Mary Travers, congratulating me and encouraging me to keep the faith.

A few years ago they recorded a Christmas special for PBS television and I watch it, religiously, two or three times every holiday season.

I've attended at least five of their concerts spanning five decades.

The first was in Miami, perhaps in 1965-66, with my mom and dad during a seminary-approved version of spring break. It was a rainy, stormy night in Miami with terrible driving conditions but my mom and dad, God rest them, had obtained concert tickets to surprise me and they were determined to get me there.

I next remember seeing PP&M in concert in Pittsburgh, about 1968, when a group of seminarians, now in college, traveled from Loretto, PA to Pittsburgh's famed Syria Mosque for the performance. One of our classmate's family owned a flower shop in Pittsburgh and had arranged to have flowers, daisies I think, sent to Mary backstage. We actually met her after the concert and when he brazenly asked for a kiss on the cheek she turned him down and warned that he was falling into sin!

The next concert I attended, again in Pittsburgh, about twenty years later, was probably the most memorable. A great performance as always but during the concert, while Peter, Paul and Mary were on stage singing about peace, love and joy, a violent fight broke out in the audience in the section right behind us. I'll never forget the incongruity of the moment.

Just two years ago I attended an outdoor summer concert in Pittsburgh with several young friends. The freight trains traveling in and out of Pittsburgh passed right behind the concert venue and disrupted the music several times. PP&M were obviously annoyed but compensated very nicely by spontaneously launching into their song Freight Train, Freight Train every time a train passed by.

And then there was the concert last month in Lowell. Obviously the audience has aged. You can tell that's the case when the line at the handicapped entrance is longer than the other lines. Lots of wheel chairs, canes, gray hair, no hair and flowered nylon shirts. Nephew Dan was nice enough to remind me that it might be the last time I'd ever see Peter, Paul and Mary in concert - not because of their condition, but because of mine. I've written him out of my will!

Peter, Paul and Mary have changed too, of course. Mary has just survived a courageous battle with cancer. She's lost a lot of weight and some of her vocal range. Paul forgot some lyrics and Peter stumbled around the stage a little bit, looking for but never finding his capo. (Ask your closest guitar player.)

It didn't really matter. It was easy to overlook the mistakes and imperfections and even the left-leaning political commentary. The concert was great and the crowd loved it. We sang along to the familiar tunes, with or without prompting from the stage. The affection for the trio was real, perhaps because we realized that indeed "the times they are a changin." When as their finale PP&M sang This Land is Your Land the Lowell Memorial Auditorium fairly rocked - okay, at least as much as several thousand golden-agers can rock anything beyond a chair.

There are lots of problems in the world today, in our Church and community too. But without a doubt, everything seems just a little better, a little brighter, when you sing along with Peter, Paul and Mary.

Okay, all together now: "Puff the Magic Dragon, lived by the sea . . ."