Sunday, February 13, 2011

Peter, Paul & Mary: A Song Will Rise (1965)

What do you do when your ship comes in but you don't want to get on?

PP&M put out two records in 1965, of which A Song Will Rise was the first. It varies the formula just slightly, expands their folksong palette nicely, and just does an all-around respectable job of trying to keep things fresh. But the bloom was off the rose by this point. Dylan went electric in January of 1965 - the famous Newport break didn't happen until July, but Bringing It All Back Home was released in March, and he was recording it in January, and don't you think PP&M knew what he was doing the minute he did it, sharing a manager and all?

I don't mean to keep harping on Bob like he was God or something, but within a year or so most of the folkies were plugging in. For all the kicking that attended its commencement, the great rapprochement with rock took about five months. Like Dylan, most of these people had grown up on Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson, were musician enough to be fascinated by what the Beatles were doing, and could no longer remain untouched by the insights of Motown and Stax. And, besides all of these factors arguing for a louder, livelier musical setting, there was the fact that Dylan had opened the floodgates for young songwriters: people who had been educated in the old songs, but who had found their own lyrical voice, and in doing so left the old songs behind for a more contemporary form of expression. This can't be stressed enough: most important North American rock acts of the late '60s and early '70s came out of the folk revival. Most of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, the whole LA folk-country-rock tribe, and the New York-LA singer/songwriter movement: old folkies every one. The Folk Revival had sown the seeds of its own destruction, really: its popularity had drawn in a generation of smart kids who didn't necessarily have any deep allegiance to old songs, and who sooner or later would grow out of them, dissolving the movement whose ranks they had swollen. (Dylan, as in so many things, was the notable exception: as early as 1967 and the Basement Tapes it becomes clear just how deep his loyalty to old songs runs; in the early '90s he recorded the only all-trad albums of his career. He never left them behind.)

So what we have in A Song Will Rise is not quite a rear-guard action - that would be the role of their next album. This is an album unwittingly made for a moment that had already passed. Like a kid in bed listening to his parents argue in the kitchen down the hall, it may sense, dimly, that momentous things are being debated, but it really doesn't have any idea what's in store for it.

So, dig. The rousing gospel opener slot is given over to a Dylan song this time: tricky. A brace of avians with a single igneous projectile, and so forth. Musically, lyrically, "When The Ship Comes In" is an appropriate choice: energetic, apocalyptic. But it's another selection from The Times They Are A-Changin' - they, like the rest of the folk-revival community, seem to be politely bypassing Another Side Of... as if it were an anomalous bit of self-indulgence on Bob's part - just a phase, rather than his definitive new direction.

And yet the closing slot is occupied by Gordon Lightfoot's "For Lovin' Me." In its own way, this is even more of a nail in the Folk Revival's coffin than all the Dylan songs were. As long as there was only one serious songwriter on the scene, he could be treated as the exception to a traditionalist rule. But then Gordon Lightfoot comes along and shows that Dylan isn't the only one: in fact there were lots of people on the scene who were starting to come up with worthwhile new songs. Songs with a sharper, more individualistic perspective on love than could be found, at least very easily, in the old songs; songs more adult than what was coming out of the Brill Building. Songs that, beyond the fingerpicking, had little to do with folk music.

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