Monday, December 17, 2012

If you like The Head and the Heart, thank Peter, Paul and Mary

First, of course, there are the obvious similarities between The Head and the Heart's Charity Rose Thielen and Peter, Paul and Mary's Mary Travers: icy blonde hair, an arresting grace and vulnerability, a uniquely throaty voice. But the echoes of PP&M's influence are found woven throughout The Head and the Heart's sound in more complicated ways as well. Listen, for example, to the hauntingly pretty "Winter Song:"

Listen to the perfectly synced three-part harmonies (two baritones and a soprano). To the lilting and spare acoustic guitar backing. To the sadness.

These are all elements found in the music of pioneering folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s. What we think of as 1960s folk music was really a rediscovery (or revival, in the preferred vernacular) of the concept of "traditional music." The sound we associate with Folk Revival actually blended everything from British medieval court music to Appalachian bluegrass and created something new that sounded earthy and authentic and familiar; in essence, it was a new sound that seemed as though it had been around forever.

And no one encapsulated that new sound better than Peter, Paul and Mary. When Travers, Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow recorded their first album together in 1962, they weren't creating a new sound; they were simply absorbing the elements of the Folk Revival that had begun in the 1950s and polished them to a pretty and widely palatable sheen, combining elements of humor and political statement into a familiar-yet-fresh folk sound. Their voices were untrained and unbalanced (they also had two baritones and a soprano), and they had their biggest hits either recording other people's songs or recording traditional tunes that had been around for decades. And yet despite their simplicity (or more likely because of it), they became so hugely popular that their influence continues to resonate 50 years later.

For example, compare "Winter Song" to Peter, Paul and Mary's "500 Miles:

You'll hear the same complex harmonies, the pleasantly uneven vocal balance, the resonating guitar accompaniment. And of course, the sadness. (Folk Revival was nothing if not beautifully sad.) So many of the elements that make Peter, Paul and Mary sound like they do manifest in one way or another on The Head and the Heart's self-titled debut album.

So remember, if you like The Head and the Heart, thank Peter, Paul and Mary.

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