Saturday, January 29, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: In The Wind (1963)

Through the inestimable Expecting Rain I found a review of a new book about the New Lost City Ramblers. "Anxiety over Authenticity in Folk Music," the review is called. The NLCRs were a folk revival group: not one I ever immersed myself in, but from Poole's description of Ray Allen's book, it sounds like they were confronting exactly the issues I was talking about here. I might have to read that book. But don't worry: I'm done (I think) talking about the authenticity question for a while. PP&M's third album brings up different issues.

In The Wind
was released in October of 1963. As Professor Wikipedia reminds us, that's just a couple of months before the British Invasion would begin, which turned teens' attention away from folk-pop immediately, and would eventually draw in more mature listeners as well. What the wiki doesn't remind us of is that October 1963 was just a month before the Kennedy assassination. I don't know if you could find any music better suited to the vaunted optimism of the Kennedy years than PP&M's. So, farewell to the golden era, right?

In The Wind is, for my money, not quite as satisfying a record as their first two. It has its share of classics. If I was put on that mythical desert island of my dreams and told I could only take a handful of Peter, Paul & Mary tunes, "Long Chain On" would definitely be one of them. And "Very Last Day" is their hardest-hitting gospel opener yet, expressing not just exultation but a little bit of rage - this is PP&M at their most politely apocalyptic.

But many of the other selections seem to fit too neatly into already-established patterns: "Rocky Road" is a pleasant, well-done record, but definitely sounds like PP&M Children's? Song Part XII.

And some of the songs are downright misfires. "Stewball," which people seem to love, always struck me as cloying and obvious in ways that "Puff" wasn't - the pop side of the folk revival was always in danger of slipping into novelty music, and here they did. "All My Trials," so haunting in Joan Baez's version, shows the lower end of Mary's range off to dismaying effect.

But I'm avoiding the one new thing they did on this album, and the reason it was such a massive hit. It includes not one, not two, but three songs by Bob Dylan. Let's get the timing nailed down here. They include "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," which Dylan recorded in late 1962 and released on his second album in May of 1963 - well before PP&M's version. They include "Quit Your Low Down Ways," which Dylan had recorded in July of 1962, but held back; it was finally released in 1991. And of course they did "Blowin' In The Wind," which Dylan had begun performing in early 1962, recorded in July of that year, and released on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in May 1963. It's worth noting that PP&M's single of this song came out in June 1963.

So, one of Bob's skewed love songs, one of his blues pastiches, and one of his protest songs. A suspiciously generous and broad selection of his work - and let's not forget that PP&M and Bobby shared a manager, the notorious Albert Grossman. This is product placement, obviously.

But it works for everybody. Dylan was the big noise in the folk-revival community by this point. He wasn't selling a lot of records, and nobody outside Greenwich Village and a few college campuses knew who he was, but all the insiders had recognized him as the Golden Boy by this point, for his performances but mostly of course for his songwriting. (And let's not forget that for all the hand-to-hand song-trading that the folk-revivalists fetishized, a lot of them learned songs off of paper: and "Blowin'" had been published in May 1962.)

In short, not only would Big Al have been leaning on PP&M to give a shout-out to his other client, but the trio would have been feeling the same pressure as everybody else in their field to come to terms with this burgeoning talent, who everybody assumed was going to be the Next Big Thing. So, three of his songs find their way onto their third album - filling the same slots that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger tunes had on earlier discs. The contemporary/protest slots. (Plus one of the trad-music slots.) A smart move, certainly, but I can't imagine it wasn't fraught with some anxiety, or maybe I just want it to be, because the piercing individuality of "Don't Think Twice" sits uneasily beside the carefully-cultivated anonymity of the trad material, and the overenthusiastic blues pastiche of "Low Down Ways" nevertheless works perfectly well as blues. Dylan, in other words, is something else entirely, Samson with long hair just about to bring the whole building down, and you can already feel it start to shake.

Every future album of theirs would be cast onto waters over which Dylan's shadow fell. That's just the way it was in the Folk Revival after 1963. But I like to imagine that brief moment in the summer of 1963 when it wasn't like that yet, when Dylan's version of "Blowin' In The Wind" was out but not very many people had heard it yet, and so PP&M's version isn't competing with it, not really, not for most listeners...

What I'm dancing around here, clumsily, is the fact that Dylan's version is weird and artistic, while PP&M's version is obvious and very poppy. And what does that mean? Every card-carrying Dylan fan (I got mine laminated) is required to prefer his version and scoff at theirs. They had the hit. He got the immortality. But what was really happening with it in May-June 1963?

Dylan's version is, as I say, weird. A little too fast for the solemnity of the lyric: you want to slow down and contemplate it, but he takes it at a tempo that rushes you through it, urging you on, gently to be sure but insistently. His vocal rhythm is skewed: it sounds off-handed, or hesitant, again undercutting the poetic simplicity and depth of the lyric. In short Dylan expertly creates tension here, forcing you to hear the questioning in these questions, allowing you to hear the diffidence, but undeniable pride, the singer feels in having formulated the questions so concisely. It's a masterpiece of a record. No doubt.

But it's not anthemic. It's an anti-anthemic recording. You're not going to march, holding hands, on Washington or any other citadel of power while singing Dylan's version. Is Dylan failing to hear the anthem in what he wrote? Or is he denying it?

PP&M's version is anthemic, through and through. They slow down the pace into a nice, swinging, rocking, hand-holding, flag-waving tempo; they round off the rough edges of his verse melody into something anybody can feel; they apply all their harmonic mastery to the chorus, to that bit that anybody can sing along to and everyone wants to. It's a perfect folk-pop performance, and if you're at all open to that sort of thing, it's tremendously winning. They do the anthemic potential of the song justice.

In later years, Dylan has always delivered this song with full cognizance of its anthemic qualities. Whether performing it acoustically or electrically, he gives it the sing-along treatment. Among other things this is likely a nod to the immortality PP&M's version gave it; it's like what he does with "All Along The Watchtower," which is always a tribute to what Hendrix heard in the song.

Is it impossible to hear in Dylan's original recording of the song an early attempt to come to terms with what PP&M did with it? The recording dates don't allow that - Dylan recorded his album version in July of 1962, almost a year before either he or they would release it. The most one could claim is that having made his version of the song, he chose to release it anyway, rather than revise it once he became aware of what PP&M were going to release (I can't imagine Dylan didn't hear their arrangement before he released his). So what I'm trying to hear probably isn't there.

But it kind of works anyway. You can hear Dylan's determinedly odd take on the song, not as a denial or a failure of the anthemic potential, but as a recognition that it's going to be turned into an anthem - and that's fine - but since you're going to hear it that way anyway, I might as well take this opportunity to point out that there's another way to hear it that nobody's going to pick up on if I don't show them the way.

That is: I'm not sure I'd call Bob's 1962 recording the definitive version of the song. It's too easy to hear it as a comment on the PP&M version. Which did, after all, what it was meant to do: provide inspiring singalong music for countless marches.

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