‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ and the Vietnam War Moratorium redux

It was perfect timing, running into Peter Yarrow a week ago Sunday unexpectedly at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). He was meeting and greeting talent buyers strolling the Hilton’s vast exhibition halls, where he was stationed at the BiCoastal Productions agency booth to assist in the promotion of Lonesome Traveler: The Concert, the acclaimed 2015 off_Broadway musical now being packaged as a concert event, that he has endorsed and can be featured in as guest star depending on his availability.

Subtitled “The Roots of American Folk Music,” the show celebrates the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Dylan and of course, Peter, Paul and Mary, in the context of folk music from the 1920s to the ’60s and beyond.

I didn’t meet them until much later, but I first saw Peter, Paul and Mary at a church on the University of Wisconsin Campus, where they performed at a Vietnam War Moratorium—but I’m not sure of the dates. According to Wikipedia, The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which was a massive demonstration/teach-in all over the country, took place Oct. 15, 1969, and was followed by a Moratorium March on Washington a month later on Nov. 15.

So it had to be the second Moratorium (the word means “a suspension of activity”), because I do remember that PP&M were leaving that night for D.C. to join the march. It’s terrible I don’t remember the church—maybe St. Paul’s?—but it had to be at the end of State Street, where the UW begins. Peter, though, remembered the church well, not to mention everything surrounding the Moratorium.

The last time I’d seen Peter was a couple years ago or so, doing pretty much the same thing, except at Toy Fair at the Javits Center. Not sure which exhibition booth he was ensconced in this time, because I think there were two toy companies that had “Puff, the Magic Dragon” toy product out, but he was probably at the one with the plush Puff toys. Wherever, he was signing Puff, the Magic Dragon illustrated children’s books, packaged with a CD of Peter singing the PP&M classic and other songs with his daughter Bethany and a cellist—and, of course, posing for pictures with starstruck baby boomer toy business people.

But at the Hilton, I was for once more than just the starstruck baby boomer kid at the Moratorium who didn’t even meet Peter Yarrow, as well as the starstruck baby boomer music journalist who had met him many times since. No, this time I approached him as an equal in that both of us had starred in the 2015 Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young.

Yes, I exaggerate! Not Peter’s role, for he had a meaty part as a leftist intellectual—hardly a stretch—whereas I was an extra–hardly a stretch–sitting at an Upper West Side coffee shop while Naomi Watts, her back to me, was meeting with Adam Driver, with Ben Stiller, playing Watts’ jealous husband, storming in after.

If you see the movie, you might recognize me by the bald spot on the top of my head—which I didn’t even know was there! Then for a second or so the camera pulls back at the end of the scene to reveal my truly recognizable receded hairline profile. Just don’t blink.

But it was so fun, and certainly arrogant, to address Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow as my co-star! That he didn’t blow me off is testament to something or other, his befuddlement, most likely. But it did lead him into some interesting observations, and an affirmation by both of us of our continued commitment to the ’60s ethos.

“It took a cultural, ethical point-of-view,” he said of While We’re Young, “and when I read the script I realized it was the antithesis of what I try to espouse in the songs I sing–as was the case with Peter, Paul and Mary all those years. And it profoundly preceded the rise of Trump.”

Here he pointed to Driver’s less-than-truthful aspiring film director character, who is “perfectly able to live without finding any sense of responsibility or guilt and can act unethically in terms of respecting the rights and creativity of Ben Stiller’s [documentary filmmaker] character. I thought that that counterpoint made it a very important film—but I didn’t expect it to become such a powerful commentary on what’s happening now in our country.”

He had attended the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg musical Finian’s Rainbow the night before, a show centering on themes of immigration, economic greed, racial reconciliation and fighting bigotry.

“At the end I sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with the cast, and spoke about why the music is so critical: It’s intention is to bring a tear to your eyes and dissolve the distance between us—and let us now unite in the face of a disuniting force.”

A disuniting force.

I told Peter Yarrow I would be marching again come Saturday, the day after the inauguration of the Disuniting Force. And Peter Yarrow of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” hugged me and called me “my Brother.”

Storm Large’s talent as big and gale-force as her name

First thing Storm Large did when she took the stage at the Cutting Room Wednesday night (Oct. 26) was point to the people at one of the nearest tables, who had come to the show having seen her sing with Portland’s sophisticated pop-jazz band Pink Martini.

“It’s different,” Large said of her own shows, to knowing peals of laughter from the room’s large contingent of Large cognoscenti. Sensing, no doubt correctly, the need to drive the point home, she repeated: “It’s different.”

And so Storm Large solo is—raw, ribald and risque. Yes, she threw in Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” as a nod to the classy Pink Martini crowd, though it had howls and Tarzan shrieks within her classic pop songstress context, thereby evoking the earlier part of her unique career. As she explained, she had been a punk-rocker in Portland (fittingly, she fronted a band called The Balls), but her “theater” voice was deemed annoying by rockers as “it wasn’t considered very rock ‘n’ roll” (she emphasized this with a perfectly placed belch).

When it was recommended that she sing Broadway songs, she objected. “This music is horrible!” she had replied, for at that time—the 1980s—her Broadway preferences were Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. As for Porter, she said, “Cole Porter to Suicidal Tendencies—it’s all the same: Ninety percent of songs are about love. They just look and feel different.”

She further related how hard it had been for her to find her “female voice.” Now 47, she recalled the era of eight-track audio (“I’m old enough!”) and male vocal faves John Denver, Johnny Cash, The Weavers and Harry Belafonte to The Kinks, Clash, Stones and Beatles. And while she offered no female singers (she did cover Dusty Springfield’s take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away”), she evoked other fierce female artists like Sandra Bernhard, Judith Owen, Tammy Faye Starlite and Nellie McKay.

Large actually began her set by belting out a jazzy version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Besides Porter and Brel, she covered, beautifully, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and performed many of her own best-loved songs. These included “Angels in Gas Stations,” which followed a raunchy story about how Large was “fugly” until she “bought some titties” and immediately developed superpowers, among them the ability to wow an apparently newly-matured male (she didn’t put it that way) gas station attendant into giving her a free can of motor oil while her male bandmates cheered her on.

A predictable crowd-pleaser was her feminist anthem “8 Miles Wide,” introduced as “a suck my dick song” but literally about the figurative dimensions of her female genitalia. Here she was joined in the “Sing it boys!” final chorus by those male bandmates (including pianist James Beaton, who’s worked with her 30 years) and joined by award-winning New York playwright Mark Acito, who appears in the song’s video.

“I love New York City, because it shows you who you are–and who you are not,” Large said. But it being a few days before Halloween, the set’s showpiece was a Portland-centered song that she wrote a while back for a benefit CD, Dearly Departed: True Lies in Song, Unearthed at Lone Fir, to help maintain Lone Fir Cemetery–final resting place of Portland pioneers, city founders and developers, military veterans, firefighters, women’s suffragists, politicians, early Chinese workers, asylum patients, and Eastern Europeans who migrated to Oregon—who had met with untimely departures.

Dearly Departed is comprised of songs about some of the residents of Lone Fir, including Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first convicted axe murderess (a victim of domestic violence, she took an axe to her husband’s head in 1854), and subject of Large’s “Asylum Road.”

“She did the laundry in the penitentiary, then an insane asylum,” said Large, who said a lot of other things about the historical needs of the men of the “Wild West” that was Portland at that time. “After reading all about her, I wondered, ‘Why weren’t you a hooker?’ But she was a frontier wife in the 1800s, and I felt so super-sad about her, and the responsibility to tell her story with respect for her situation and struggle, yet make it musical and entertaining.”

Returning to the 2000s, Large darted into the audience, confiscating cellphones and shooting photos of their owners before switching them up, to be sorted out later. “This is what live music is for!” she railed. “Just be here.”

She ranted, too, about driverless cars and iPad-ordering at airports–modern developments that take away jobs from people and make them obsolete. And wishing Hillary Clinton a happy 69th birthday, she suggested that “we all need to brush up on foreign languages, in case we all need to flee.”

Here she listed all the horrors associated with the Trump campaign, surmising that he never achieved “enough pussy to grab, or buildings with his name on it.” Yet here is also where the divide in the Storm Large stage act—ofttimes X-rated, but in a most uplifting way–was most pronounced: “Who hurt you?” she asked of Trump, then humanized him—at least to a degree.

“Like it or not, he’s a human being,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of terrible shit. I’ve said some terrible shit.”

It was an appropriate preface to her song “Somebody to Love,” prior to closing, appropriately, with a reprise of the National Anthem.

Oscar Brand–An appreciation

Oscar Brand, one of folk music’s great luminaries, died Sept 30 at 96.

He was “a national treasure,” per folk music authority Stephanie P. Ledgin.

“Oscar Brand has left an enormous number of accomplishments in music, television and beyond that will entertain and educate for many years to come,” says Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “He was warm, funny, engaging, abundantly generous in his talents. It was truly an honor to have known and worked with him.”

Ledgin’s connection with Brand came during the latter part of a remarkable 70-year career dating back to the 1940s. His Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show, which aired every Saturday on New York’s WNYC-AM, extended into its 70th year after its launch in December, 1945. On it he introduced the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, all the while refusing payment so as to avoid being censored.

A two-time Peabody Award winner, Brand was a most prolific musician himself, and after his Army service during World War II moved to Greenwich Village and wrote a book How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me. He eventually recorded hundreds of campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, protest songs, military songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties, filling over 100 albums. Doris Day charted in 1952 with his “A Guy Is a Guy,” and his “Something to Sing About”—also known as “This Land of Ours”—became the unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.

Additionally, Brand hosted the Canadian TV show Let’s Sing Out (in which he featured such folk music pioneers as Malvina Reynolds, The Womenfolk and The Weavers, and introduced then unknown Canadian singers like Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot) and collaborated on musicals including The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

Brand participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches, and was a board member in the ‘60s of the Children’s Television Workshop, for which he helped develop Sesame Street. He joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) board of directors in the early years of the organization and was responsible for creating the first SHOF Museum, then located at One Times Square in 1980.

On behalf of SHOF, president/CEO Linda Moran expressed gratitude for Brand’s “invaluable contributions,” adding, “he will always be remembered fondly by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.”

Moran further notes the many years that Brand served as the organization’s curator—and that he remained an active board member up until 2014.

“On a personal level, Oscar was a handsome, charming, witty, brilliant gentleman, and I will always fondly remember him for the support and guidance he gave me in my role as president of the SHOF,” says Moran.

Fred Hellerman–An appreciation

Vocalist/guitarist Fred Hellerman, a founding member of The Weavers who died Sept. 1 at 89, was the last surviving original member of the historic quartet, which formed a vital link between the folk music revival of the 1950s–which emerged out of the labor movement–and the peace-oriented folk revival of the `60s.

“As a founding member of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman’s place in American folk and pop music is secure,” notes music historian John Alexander. “While the other original members–Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and of course Pete Seeger–are more well-known, Hellerman’s contributions cannot be minimized. It’s a magical blending of all four voices that made songs like ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘On Top of Old Smokey,’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ come alive and embed themselves in our memories.”

“And let’s not forget that Hellerman produced Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant, one of the most defining albums of the ’60s,” adds Alexander.

The Weavers also introduced songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Midnight Special,” “The Sloop John B,” “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” “This Land is Your Land,” “Wimoweh,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” into American popular culture. They paved the way for generations of important musicians including the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

“The music of the Weavers, for which Fred Hellerman was best known, continues to resonate not just within the folk music community, but globally, pertinent to social issues that remain at our core every day,” says Stephanie P. Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “I was never fortunate to meet Hellerman, but was thrilled to attend the 1980 Carnegie Hall Reunion.”

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, Seeger and Hays were identified as Communist Party members, with Seeger judged guilty of contempt for refusing to testify—though his conviction was later overturned. But The Weavers were no longer allowed to perform on TV or radio, and were dropped by their label. Denied airplay and the ability to record, and with their concerts besieged by right-wing protesters, they were essentially forced to disband in 1952.

The Weavers did reunite for a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1952, and a recording of the show was released in 1957. The group continued to perform after Seeger, who had established a successful solo career, left in 1958; they split up for good in 1964, though the original foursome got together occasionally through 1980, when their last full performance was the Carnegie Hall concert attended by Ledgin.

“We are very saddened to learn of the passing of influential folk music vocalist, guitarist, and producer Fred Hellerman,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. “A 2006 recipient of The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award with the iconic group the Weavers, Fred and his bandmates were best-known for performing timeless versions of American folk standards such as ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘If I Had A Hammer,’ and ‘On Top Of Old Smoky.’ Their musical talents, and commitment to social activism, were a strong influence on the folk music revival of the 1960s. We have lost a true innovator.”