Monday, March 26, 2012

Time To Say Goodbye: Peter, Paul & Mary: "Leavin' On A Jet Plane"

And so we step from swirling drama to plainspoken fact. The 70s are almost upon us and it is time to leave; even if we enjoyed it, it is over and the future is coldly blank, empty, as empty as a departure lounge once a plane has left; as empty as a life feels without that other person to share it.

What genre of music has been there, lurking in the background, the whole decade, ready to step up for this moment of separation and brave steps into the unknown? Why, folk of course.

And what is folk? That is something I have been pondering, and it’s a tougher question than I expected. It’s far easier to say what it isn’t; it’s not multiple costume changes, strobe lights and elaborate sets; it’s not a category on The X Factor/American Idol; it’s not exactly enamored of show business.

Folk music is of the people, for the people and by the people, hence its name. It celebrates and laments ordinary life, life as lived by the person(s) singing it, whether the story being told is personal , historical or observational. The great songwriting teams dutifully pounding away through the 60s at Motown, the Brill Building or elsewhere had not much to do with folk, though they certainly observed it – all the social struggles of the 60s had a voice in folk, indeed folk led the way (I am counting Bob Dylan as folk, for all intents and purposes here). The early 60s folkies got into rock simply as a way to (literally) amplify their message, and once that had been accomplished, reverted back to their folk/roots/country sounds by the end of the decade. Others just kept strumming and didn’t go rock at all, as it simply wasn’t for them; by far the most famous was Peter, Paul & Mary, who had a lovely hit (amongst many) with their self-deprecating “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” which wasn’t rock at all.

This song was recorded in 1967 (written in 1966 at the airport in Toronto by one John Denver*) and released in 1969, perhaps as a fond farewell of sorts to the decade; no doubt they had been performing it - both Peter, Paul & Mary and The Chad Mitchell Trio (Denver standing in for Mitchell). The song is direct and simple in its way, Mary taking the lead and giving the story - she's sad, she wants forgiveness and unity, but has to go, against her will. Anyone who has had to leave someone at an airport - Toronto or otherwise - will know the sad acceptance here, the longing, the necessary is a hushed song, an uneasy one, but Peter, Paul & Mary had been around since 1961; before the psychedelic paisley freak-outs, before the go-go boots and paper dresses, before the British Invasion, even. They were the ones who helped to make Bob Dylan famous, and they are here to help say farewell to the decade (this was a #1 in the US, sitting neatly between two other songs of promised reunions, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye**" and "Someday We'll Be Together"). After the agonies of "Ruby" and "Suspicious Minds" - country and rock - comes the actual departure with folk.

All music is folk music as Lester Bangs says, but I've always thought of it as music that is open, direct, perhaps a bit mysterious and poetical at times, but more than anything, immediate and public, earnest and funny at turns. Folk was there to wake people up, protest, empower, encourage and console; it was only right, at the end of a troubled decade, for it to come back and acknowledge the loneliness and longing at the end, when there was no choice (the 70s being that taxi honking its horn) but to leave. The future is calling, the past is gone, perhaps to be resolved in the future. But for now, a kiss and hug, quiet words, and then distance, the plane taking off into nothingness.

Whether people wanted it to end or not, the 60s were gone, but as we will see, that doesn't mean they will be forgotten; far from it. 1967 in particular haunts and reminds, popping up and flashing back when least expected. One time cannot help but grow and progress from the seeds of another, and folk continues on, true to itself, even if it's not getting into the charts as it once did***. What is left? For many, it's the only option left: the blues. Boogie is up next, but it's boogie with a purpose.

* I can only wonder if he had heard Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" and wanted to write something like it.

** A personal aside: I always find myself crying at the end of this, even though it's not a sad song, really. The fact that it's sung by fans at the end of games kind of makes it a folk song, in that people are singing it for their own purpose (as opposed to team songs, which are kind of like unofficial anthems).

*** That said, Bruce Springsteen's latest album Wrecking Ball is most certainly folk; as he first was an aspiring folk singer himself back in the mid-60s, this is no surprise.

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