And another one. The thing about Peter, Paul and Mary (Mary being Mary Travers, who has just died, at the age of 72) is that, influential thought they were, or were made to be, they are collectively responsibible for perhaps one of the best and one of the worst songs in my collection. They produced a lot of ho-hum singles, including the ‘drug-related’ Puff The Magic Dragon (I don’t believe that for a minute), and the all the ones which sanitised Dylan, but paved the way for much of his success. But they also produced the least funny parody ever – I Dig Rock’n’Roll Music, which is so bad, it makes the Barron Knights look like master-satirists. I think that, had their career stalled at that point, I wouldn’t have much affection for them (and, to be honest, it was Mary Travers who was the focus of attention; rather as with The Springfields and Dusty, and harsh thought it might seem, the others were replaceable).
But they also made one of the few singles I have actually replaced because it was worn out from over-playing: Leaving On A Jet Plane. This John Denver song – and I wasn’t normally a fan of his, either – is one of my desert-island songs, not just because of the melody, and the way the lyrics seem to bring tears to the edges of the eye, but because of the way (Peter’s, Paul’s and) Mary’s voice surges up, or falls back, the way the volume is suddenly changed, and with such skill. Everything about the recording is right: the quiet introductory guitar, the rather sad opening tone of the vocal, the way the bass-line holds the song together.
They used Leaving On A Jet Plane in the cod-space film, Armageddon, just as the battered astronauts are trudging off to save the world from an incoming asteroid, and it was a wickedly funny moment, but it somehow didn’t damage the song. It is up there with the Mamas and Papas version of Dedicated To The One I Love, which also varies the intensity, and also begins with disarming tranquility.
Mary Travers’ solo career never really took off, which was a pity, as she was much more than a harmony singer. To someone of my age, she seemed just a little older, probably because, of all things, she parted her hair on the side when everyone else was parting it down the middle. That was how fickle and shallow we were. And Puff didn’t help: as with Julie Felix, a wonderful singer with plenty to say, she was cursed by being known for a children’s song (We’re Going To The Zoo, in Julie Felix’s case). And of course, it is inescapable that her manager (Albert Grossman) was in some ways using her and the other two to sell his main product: Dylan. It was interesting to read about her commitments – about all three of them, actually – to libertarian causes, which persisted.
So: for me, just one beautiful song. But what an astonishing one (and at the time, uncharacteristic and unexpected one, too). There are live versions on YouTube, but in a way, I prefer to watch the record spin: