Peter Paul & Mary
A few days ago Maggie, just turned six, had her first piano lesson. In practice this meant that her mother needed another trick to keep our precocious child from rattling disruptively around the house while recovering from the flu (no swine involved). Maggie learned, then, to place her hands on C and to play C, D, E, F, G, and back again, though not yet what the letters were, nor, apparently, that they were the same on each octave.
But she is proud of knowing that much, and I suspect we shall have to get the piano tuned so we can tolerate the din which inevitably will follow the dawning of this and other knowledge.
The day of the great Seattle earthquake…oh, that’s a little spooky. I had to Google the earthquake to figure out what year it was, and it turns out to have happened April 29, 1965, a day after Maggie’s birthday. Which means she is the same age now (save a couple weeks) that I was when the earthquake hit and sloshed half our tropical fish out of the tank and killed three people. But what I really remember about that long-ago day was that mom was playing classical music on the Fisher and ironing in the living room, and I made the decision that I wished to be a concert violinist.
The consequence of that decision, coupled with our move to a larger house and acquisition of my crazy grandmother’s piano — built around World War II to be a player, and so tall and heavy, without the player works installed — was that I was sentenced to six years of hard labor in the Pace method (don’t let your children do this, please), and never learned to play piano.
The first piece of sheet music I bought, though I never even waved at learning the song, was “Puff , The Magic Dragon,” a 1963 pop #2 hit for Peter Paul & Mary.
By coincidence, Maggie decided today that she would be Puff the hamster. We don’t have a hamster. We don’t know anybody who has a hamster, that I know of. And there isn’t one in her classroom.
So after dinner I went digging and, sure enough, I’d saved (but never opened) the Peter Paul & Mary box set, called Carry It On and released by Rhino in 2003. I suppose I should feel bad for having kept such a thing without listening, but — like the Beatles catalog I’ve never made digital — I know the songs I want to know, and never felt the need: “500 Miles,” “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.” Those are stuck in my pre-teen jukebox along with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “They’re Coming To Take Me Away” and “Leaning On A Lampost,” and I don’t give a fig if I’ve gotten any of those titles wrong because that’s how I remember them and that’s good enough.
And, yes, I know that Peter Paul & Mary are terminally unhip, the polished edge of the folk rebellion. Which may be the other reason I’d not troubled to listen to this set.
The opening liner notes, incidentally, are by David Halberstam.
Back not so many years ago, we critics used to tee off on box sets. Inescapably we were jealous, because we knew the material better than the producers (and remained innocent of the licensing issues which confronted them), and could have done it better. Because we knew why the artist matter, and could have built a better case. Because we would have sequenced things so they listenable, not chronological (or, as Rickie Lee Jones did, alphabetical!)
I have a bookcase full of box sets, some of which I’ve listened to often, and some of which remain unopened against future need or curiosity or time.
But I haven’t gotten one for some time. This may mean I’ve fallen off the mailing lists, which is fine and fair. But I fear it means that they’re not being made anymore, another casualty of the digital revolution. Which means that as much as we critics loved to kvetch about these career summaries, produced for people too poor or too lazy to already own the entire body of work, festooned with obligatory and largely unnecessary unreleased tracks or indifferent live recordings or rehearsal noises or whatever…the summary statement is gone.
I wonder, then, how careers will be anthologized, condensed, made sense of in the not-too-distant future in which tracks are released without the benefit of an album to contextualize them, when music is made without tangible traces left in the physical world, when there aren’t functioning record labels to argue about those rights and assemble these loving testimonials to the artists who once moved us. I wonder.