A notice in The Roanoke Times “50 Years Ago” listing this week noted an upcoming appearance of legendary folk music trio Peter, Paul & Mary at Virginia Tech’s colliseum in February 1968.
As happens perhaps too often in that feature, a mention of a story from 50 years ago stirs memories. Because of my age in 1968 (19 until late in the year) I became the paper’s defacto reviewer of most of the rock and folk acts that visited the Roanoke and New River valleys.
The apparance of Peter, Paul and Mary had some news value as well because of controversy over Puff, the Magic Dragon, Peter Yarrow’s song about little boys, dragons and toys and young imaginations.
Those who spend far too much time trying to find fault in just about everything claimed the song was about drug use and promoted such use to children.
After the show, PP&M spent some time with reporters and I asked Yarrow about the claims he wrote the song about drugs. He replied that he found a poem by Leonard Lipton and used the words as lyrics for the song.
“It’s time to clear this up once and for all,” he said. “This is a cute little song based on a cute little poem about kids and dragons and toys and the joys of being a child. When I decide to write something about drugs or war I will say so.”
A couple of years later, I sat on the grass behind the stage and tent at the Mississippi River Festival on the campus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Illinois — across the river from St. Louis and talked with singer/songwriter Jackson Browne about music and its influence.
‘We try to write songs to entertain and people start looking for ‘hidden’ meanings that aren’t there,” he said, pointing to an uproar over America’s hit, A Horse With No Name, a lyrical piece about a horse and the desert.
“Some bozo disc jockey claimed the song was about heroin and drugs,” Browne said. “It wasn’t anything like that. So often, the words come into our heads simply because the rhyme and nothing else.”
Similar things were claimed about Don McLean’s American Pie, a long ballad that some thought was an ode to Buddy Holly’s death in a small plane crash that also killed Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson — the Big Bopper — in 1959.
“Not at all,” McLean finally admitted in an interview many years later. “I strung a bunch of verses together with words that rhymed.”
Jim Croce, the singer whose life ended way before his time in a plane crash, sat on the back steps of the stage at the MRF and told me that his songs like You Don’t Mess Around with Jim or Bad, Bad Leroy Brown came from stories he read or heard and a little imagination thrown in.
Croce was a great storyteller who gave people the impression of a tough street kid. He was a Philadelphia kid and graduate of Villanova University, where he majored in psychology with a minor in German.
“I like to tell stories with my songs,” he said. “Nothing that deep. Just entertainment.” He died at age 30 with five others in a small plane crash in Louisiana.
“I’m having fun,” he said before going on stage at the MRF, just a short time before the crash. “When it stops being fun, I’ll find something else to do.”