Over the last few years I’ve developed a habit. It might go away if I win the lottery or reap the benefits of the rebound of the American economy, or it might not. Whenever I’ve shopped for music recently, I’ve spent a lot of time looking in the $1-or-less vinyl bins.
Occasionally some very good music, perhaps in a superficially beat-up form, turns up there. I must admit, though, that maintaining this habit requires bending one’s tastes in a certain set of directions. These include becoming curious about post-peak late-70’s fusion, or classical music in old Columbia Masterworks recordings, or Barbra Streisand. (Hey, Glenn Gould was a fan, and Bill Evans recorded “People.”)
A large percentage of stuff in those bins is there with good reason. But it’s hard to fight off the urge to find a piece of musical history that costs less than a bowl of chili at the office cafeteria.
I thought of this recently when news broke that Mary Travers had died. Peter, Paul & Mary’s albums, like many that were thoroughly suited to one era but not to later ones, are a staple of the dollar bins. Like many people born after the 60’s, I first came into contact with them through my parents’ collection. They were never big for me, but I remember being amused by Mary’s version of Shel Silverstein’s “Boa Constrictor” when I was little (“oh shit/he’s up to my tit” is the alternate lyric I remember from one of my junior high classmates when we somehow heard the song again at my age), and I might have heard their version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” before Dylan’s.
A few months ago, though, I reconnected with one of their records, The Peter Paul & Mary Album from 1966, via the cheap vinyl bins. It is the first of the PPM-grapples-with-folk-rock trilogy, meaning that it has some of Dylan’s sidemen, and a photo of Travers with Dylan and Donovan on the back. Most of it, though, is their usual well-groomed, earnest, music, with some strong songs from up-and-comers like Laura Nyro mixed with a few mundane ones.
Each member has one more-or-less solo track. The two men’s offerings are the ones I remember from when I last heard this album over twenty years ago. “The King Of Names,” sung by Peter with backing from the Butterfield Blues Band, catches at least some of the haunting unexplained detail of folk music (“there is a man who goes around taking names/he took my father’s name and left him to die in shame”). And Paul’s “Norman Normal” is one of the true curious occasionally found on those bargain-bin records, featuring nothing but Paul, multi-tracked, doing a convincing impression of “Secret Agent Man” heard through a 1966 transistor radio.
I didn’t notice Mary’s feature track until more recently. It’s a solo performance of a love song from another up-and-comer, John Denver. I’ve made wisecracks about Denver, another dollar-bin staple, but the song is melodic. And Mary reportedly altered the words, believing that the lofty sentiments made more sense as a mother’s thoughts about her child than as a girl’s thoughts about her guy. It’s a wise lesson, lost in the era of more obscure and provocative lessons that were starting to come from Dylan and his cohorts. For the dollar bins, not bad.
In the last few weeks online, I’ve been seeing a guy trying to sell his Thriller LP for $50. I doubt Travers’s passing will propel her group out of the dollar bins. Nonetheless, she was part of a group who made a lot of sense in one era, and still has a few things to say now.