50th anniversary March on Washington reunites two-thirds of Peter, Paul and Mary

Observations about the vital role that music played at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, in the civil rights movement and even on social and political life in the U.S. could fill books, far more than there was room to address in Wednesday’s Page A-1 story on protest music.

Here are a few additional thoughts that, though not included in that report, are eminently worth sharing.

Noel Paul Stookey reunited Wednesday morning with his former Peter, Paul and Mary group mate Peter Yarrow in Washington to reprise their appearance at the march 50 years ago. “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were every bit as insightful and illuminating, said Yarrow in recalling what the day meant to him and the crowd of several hundred thousand.


INTERACTIVE: March on Washington | Musical Highlights

“Possibly the most quoted aspect of Peter, Paul and Mary’s participation in the march was Mary’s take, which she voiced during the rehearsal” in 1963, said Stookey, referring to Mary Travers, who died in 2009. “Mary was looking out over this panorama of half a million people standing in front of the Washington Monument during the run-through, and she said she had never felt hope more palpable.

“There comes that moment in any kind of spiritual connection, whether you’re in small church, at a graveside mourning somebody or just in a moment of silence, when there is that invisible mystery of connectedness. Yes, it’s usually aware of the fact there are a lot of people with you who are on the same wavelength, but seldom is it described as hope.”

Although folk music reached its commercial peak in the early ‘60s, before the Beatles and the whole British Invasion came along to take over as the driving force in pop music at that time, Stookey added, “I never bought into the idea that folk music was dead.

PHOTOS: Music and the March on Washington

“I saw that stylistically it had been passed on to the Beatles and James Taylor,” he said. “Contextually it had already made its mark on the music industry in 1961-62, because it wasn’t just a cute little tune, or a nostalgic reference to Tom Dooley, but music that was asking me how many times must the cannonball fly -- a message that was applicable not only for civil rights, but at a march to end the war in Vietnam. And we didn’t just hear it as the solo guy with a guitar anymore, a disheveled guy playing a harmonica. We heard it in sophisticated productions expressed in a variety of ways.”

To further illustrate the point, Stookey invoked jazz titan Louis Armstrong’s famous comment that “All music is folk music — I ain’t never seen no horse sing a song.”

“Folk music’s big influence to me was not stylistic but contextual,” Stookey said. “It changed the face of all music. Sure, once in a while we’ve all got to go out to a dance. But there was also this music that reminded us to recommit ourselves to working toward the greater good.”

PHOTOS: A look back at the March on Washington

Stookey and Yarrow were joined at the anniversary performance by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, parents of Trayvon Martin, and Mark Barden, father of Daniel Barden, one of the young victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings in December.

Other outlets are noting Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in various ways. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland also is highlighting the impact that music had at the event and beyond.

The Rock Hall has assembled a page for its website titled “50 Years Later; Mahalia Jackson and the Voices of the March On Washington.”

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For my story, I also spoke to Lauren Onkey, the Rock Hall’s vice president of education and public programs, who pointed out the communal impact music can create in a way that a speech, however inspiring, cannot.

“With music, when you can get people singing together, they’re also recognizing each other, that they’re feeling the same emotion,” Onkey said. “And if you get the right song, you’re using those works to recognize that you’re part of a bigger community, that I’m not alone.”

She also pointed out the symbiotic relationship of music and politics in the role that day of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who has been credited by several who were there on the stage with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for spurring him to depart from his prepared speech and “Tell them about the dream!”

“Right before that, he had specifically asked her to sing [the spiritual] ‘I’ve Been Buked, I’ve Been Scorned,’ so the collaboration between the two of them at that point is intriguing,” Onkey said. “The movement really is dependent on the music and the musical performers.”


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