Two Thousand Voices
We walked up the stairs to our box. Second tier, center. How on earth did Viviane score such great seats? We hung our coats in the outer room and leafed through the Playbill. The theatre was filling up and our box mates started arriving. Where was Viviane? She wouldn’t be late; that’s not like her.
There she was; she walked in and sat down. We said hellos, smiling like crazy. The orchestra was assembling, the choir in formation behind them.
And then they walked out, arm in arm, slowly navigating over microphone cords and past chairs to center stage.
Applause. There was so much applause. A full two minutes’ worth, I think. A standing ovation for Peter. For Paul. For Mary.
For Mary, who had been fighting Leukemia for the past year and who had undergone a bone marrow transplant in April. For Mary, who was significantly thinner, with wispy blonde pixie hair and who tired easily. She was gorgeous in a long sleeved blue and green silk dress with a wide scooped neckline, beaming at the crowd which could barely contain its joy at seeing them—at seeing her—singing again.
In September, when Viviane told me that Peter, Paul & Mary were performing their Holiday Concert with the New York Choral Society this year at Carnegie Hall, I knew I had to come. I know this concert. I’ve watched the 1985 performance on PBS every December since, well, 1986. Before that, at age eleven I heard “Lemon Tree” and went to the record store to buy every tape I could. I memorized every song, every harmony. I made my father play PP&M every time we got into the car. Of course I grew up singing Puff, The Magic Dragon, and choking up during the last verse. Damn it if I still don’t cry hearing it now.
The applause finally quieted and the audience took their seats. Then the familiar strains of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” started. I smiled and my eyes welled. And yes, Jefferson was there, sitting behind me like a gentleman, and yes, Viviane was up front and off to the right. But for the most part I was there, weaving between the fingers of Peter and Noel Paul on their guitar strings. I was lying in front of the cellos in the orchestra, feeling the vibrations in my chest. I was the breath of the singers in the chorus, rising upward to the coffers. I was the memory of Mary’s formerly long blonde hair, swaying as she did, taken away by the music.
I even took a detour through the audience and brushed the neck of Senator John Kerry, who was on the parquet seating with his wife. We’d watched him walk in, surrounded by enthusiastic concertgoers who pumped his hand and trapped him in the aisle before the concert got underway.
There are over two thousand seats in the Isaac Stern concert hall and yet I suspect that every person there felt as close to the performers as I did. The chorus was in mixed formation: sopranos interspersed with baritones, tenors, basses and altos. It’s a very difficult way to sing, separated from one’s section, but it results in a gorgeous, blended sound. As I type tonight, I am listening to the live recording from ’85 and reliving December 9th, twenty years later. Tears mix with smiles and laughter, and I am daunted by the task of conveying how absolutely wonderful it was.
I don’t know if I thanked Viviane properly for arranging the tickets. I don’t know if I thanked Jefferson enough for arranging a free weekend when he was to have the children. I don’t know when or if I’ll ever see Peter, Paul and Mary perform again in my lifetime. And for this gift, I am so grateful.
That the songs of this trio, some of them forty years old, were shared by parents and their children, is the purest definition of folk music. It transcends age and time, reminding us that we are still responsible for one another. When a father holding his daughter, leans his head into hers as they both sing “Light One Candle,” my heart is broken and filled back up. It makes me thankful that my father indulged my obsession many years ago. It makes me proud that my children know these songs and hopeful that they’ll remember them when they are adults, when they have children.
When we’ve all gone to graveyards, every one.
Peter, Paul & Mary
New York City