Sunday, January 23, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: (Moving) (1963)

Their first may be their definitive album, but their second, (Moving), comes damn close to matching it. It follows closely on the template of the first - same kinds of songs, in mostly the same kind of order (closing with a moody seasonal number rather than an antiwar anthem). It's as satisfying as anything they ever did, and if it doesn't quite equal the impact of the first one, it's only because most of the songs aren't quite as instantly memorable as the ones on the first album. They're fine songs - "Pretty Mary" (and is she ever! dig that cover! the face that launched a thousand trips!), "Tiny Sparrow," and "Old Coat" are some of my favorites of theirs - but they do tend to fly under the radar a bit.

The exception to the above is "Puff, The Magic Dragon," which is, of course, one of the group's best-known recordings. It's also significant as the only original composition of PP&M's to lodge itself in the popular consciousness. The Wikipedia entry on the song is worth reading, as a primer to the controversy.

Because, of course, "Puff" may be a drug song. Or it may not be. What it is for sure is most people's introduction to the thorny recesses of literary interpretation.

(Oh, please don't throw me in that briar patch, Br'er Bear!)

Is "Puff" a drug song? Most people who ask that question want a yes or no answer. They think there can be a yes or no answer. Unless you analyze lit for a living, in which case you know that the only way you can answer that question is with another question: what do you mean?

I'm right with Bill on this one: it depends on what you mean by the word "is."

That is, the kind of answer you expect to that question, the kind of information that you would accept as evidence one way or another, depends on what you think defines meaning in a song lyric: i.e., in literature.

Oversimply put, there are basically three positions you can take on this question. Defined in extreme terms, they are these.

(a) You can believe that the meaning of a piece of writing is whatever the author of it thinks it is when he or she writes it. The author defines the meaning. If you ask Peter (and lyricist Lenny Lipton) if "Puff" is a drug song, and they say no, there's you're answer: it's not a drug song. Unless you think they're lying, and really did intend for it to be a drug song, in which case it is a drug song but you have no proof. Unless you catch them on video sometime lighting up a spliff and laughing about how they've corrupted generations of kids by tricking them into unknowingly singing a drug song. But even then it's not proof, because maybe they're only being ironic, or maybe James O'Keefe entrapped them, or...

The point is, if you believe authorial intent is what defines meaning, then you're s.o.l., because you can never satisfactorily ascertain authorial intent. You really have no idea what Yarrow and Lipton meant unless you were squatting in their heads. This is kind of obvious, right?

The funny thing is, most of us realize this, and yet most of us have trouble completely discounting authorial intent as a tool for interpreting literature. Most of us (me included) are at least curious to hear what an author has to say about her writing - most of us won't ignore interviews with our favorite authors. So I'm not saying authorial intentions, and discussions thereof, are totally irrelevant...

(b) You can believe the meaning of a piece is whatever the reader makes of it. The reader completes the circuit of meaning, and only then does the juice flow. If you hear "Jackie Paper," "Puff," "dragon/draggin'," and references to magic kingdoms and you think "marijuana!" then it's a drug song - for you.

In other words, here there is no fixed meaning: the lyrics mean whatever you want them to mean. Or maybe want has nothing to do with it: maybe you can't help but hear the lyrics as being about drugs, because you think nobody could possibly be that naive, or you think Yarrow and Lipton were dirty fucking hippies and of course they were trying to corrupt your children, or whatever.

The point is, even if you're a hundred percent convinced that it's a drug song, so what: that interpretation is valid for yourself and yourself only. And few of us are ready to completely accept that approach, and not just, I think, because we're hopelessly looking for absolutes in a world that has none. It just doesn't square with our lived experience to think that words mean something completely different to everyone who hears them. If that were the case no communication would be possible at all. And yet we sort of communicate, which means it must be possible to sort of establish meaning that's valid for more than one reader...

And yet most of us are reluctant to abandon this approach completely, too, because our experience also tells us that poems, literature, songs can have a deeply personal meaning to us, that nobody can talk us out of.

(c) You can - and it should be clear by now that I think most of us in practice do - take some sort of middle position, where we feel a certain amount of reasonable attention should be paid to authorial intent, and/or the fixed meanings of words, and a certain amount of reasonable attention should be paid to the way large numbers of people receive those words. Meaning is messy, and maybe can't be completely nailed down, but we should be able to arrive at a more or less accurate understanding of what a song means by this kind of triangulation... (I really am a Clintonian, ain't I?)

And you can, furthermore, realize that by adopting (c) what you're really doing is recognizing that the process of thinking about both (a) and (b) and all points in between adds more to your understanding of the literature than a simple yes or no answer to the original question ever could have.

Let's look at a different example. J.J. Cale wrote a song called "Cocaine," which Eric Clapton covered. It's one of his biggest hits and concert faves. If you think about the lyrics, and read what Clapton says about them, you could make a case that the author and performer think it's an anti-drug song. But if you listen to live recordings and hear tens of thousands of people joyfully shouting along with the chorus, you realize that for most listeners, it's a pro-drug song. Which is it? There's no simple answer, but by recognizing the ambiguities in the lyrics, the way they make it possible for listeners to have two interpretations, and by noting the ambiguity in Clapton's own presentation, whereby he continues to perform the song year after year in full knowledge of the fans' interpretation, you begin to realize that everybody's feelings about drugs are complicated, and that rock and roll is not a genre that lends itself well to cautionary tales, and that Clapton's relationship with his audience is probably a little too comfortable for his artistic good, and that his own feelings about the substances he's on record as having abused and forsaken are probably more ambivalent than he lets on, and, and, and.

So: is "Puff" a drug song? Do you want it to be? Do you want to find a smoking gun that says Peter Yarrow was trying to get kids to smoke reefer? Do you want it not to be? Do you want to be able to hear it in a state of innocence, so that you the jaded adult can indulge in childhood fantasy without thinking about its metaphorical possibilities? All of these are real questions, and interesting ones.

As is, to be honest, the question of what Yarrow and Lipton thought they were doing. I tend to believe them when they say they had nothing like that in mind... And yet, we can't be entirely sure they're telling the truth now, can we? I mean, it's one thing to be writing songs for adults in the relatively sheltered and progressive world of the Folk Revival, and quite another to find yourselves ten or twenty years later, in the midst of a conservative backlash trying to account for the effect your words might have on kids who were never intended to be the audience... The young hipster may very well write something that the older daddy may come to regret having written. Happens all the time.

What's resonant to me about this scenario - for which, I hasten to add, I HAVE NO PROOF - is the way it seems to fit with the other children's songs PP&M sang in their early folk period (I'm not talking about their actual children's album). That is, I don't think they were meant for kids.

I've said before that I consider the Folk Revival of the late '50s and early '60s to be the original college radio music. It was a music of college town - Cambridge, Palo Alto, Austin, Dinkytown - Greenwich Village, too, sure, but largely because of the proximity of NYU, no? Later, folk music came to be considered appropriate for children, campfire singalongs and the like, but at first it was nightclub, or at least coffee-house, music. Places where grown-ups gathered.

So why the kids' songs? And I should note that all the folkies seemed to have them - it wasn't just PP&M. Dylan sang kids' songs, although he didn't tend to put them on his albums. This strain probably comes from Woody Guthrie, who wrote songs like "Car Car" for his kids.

But I think it also has something to do with the age of the Folk Revival crowd. Mostly college students or college age people: right at that age when you're finally feeling like an adult, and you're suddenly seized with nostalgia for childhood. We've all had that road trip, at 19 or 20, when, between U2 or Public Enemy albums, somebody starts singing the "Sesame Street" song and everybody joins in, right? There's something about that age which makes it possible for you to look back at your childhood with fresh eyes, to feel, for the very first time, the loss of innocence that defines adulthood, while at the same time you're still close enough to it to feel like if you try hard enough you could slip back into that innocence - while at the same time you're old enough that you feel that you wouldn't lose any of your adult dignity by doing so. At 16 you're too concerned with looking grown-up to sing "Froggy Went A-Courtin'"; at 20, you can do it with impunity. And of course at 20 you start to understand your childhood in ways you never did before. You become aware of the dark realities behind, say, "Ring Around the Rosey."

That, I think, is what explains the status of the children's song in the Folk Revival, and particularly in PP&M's oeuvre. They're not singing them for kids, at least not at first. They're presenting childhood to adults, in such a way that both recalls the innocence, and suggests that there were depths and meanings not understood at the time. "It's Raining" starts with play, but gets pretty somber. "Autumn To May" presents nonsense, not just as play, but as something poignant, mysterious. The baby-talk syllables in "Gone The Rainbow" aren't jokes, they're attempts to grasp something that lies just beyond the reach of expression, or linguistic memory.

And then there's "Puff."

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