Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Rare Folk Recording: Art & Paul, "Puff The Magic Dragon"

Art and Paul, a legendary but short-lived Greenwich Village-based folk duo from the late 1950s and early 1960s, perform a version of the now-classic children's song "Puff, The Magic Dragon" recorded in 1961, two years prior to the release of Peter, Paul and Mary's far more famous rendition.

Art Podell and Paul Potash were friends who joined musically in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, just at the time when the "pop folk" boom that had originated largely on the West Coast began to bring attention to the plethora of talented musicians and songwriters who had already been working in the Village, in some cases for years.

Podell and Potash were painstaking in their arrangements, sometimes taking weeks to work out the nuances of a single song. They were rewarded with a loyal following in clubs and concerts and with a contract with major label Columbia Records, which was looking to cash in on the burgeoning folk boom but as yet had no folk artists in their stable of performers.

The duo's first Columbia release, Art and Paul: Songs of Earth and Sky[1960] is today regarded as a lost classic; copies of the record are very hard to find and sell at top dollar to folk aficionados when they become available. Earth and Sky led to the recording of a second album, Hangin', Drinkin' and Stuff[1961] before Art and Paul left for the West Coast, where without either consistent bookings or record sales they disbanded. In 1962, Podell became a member of the folk ensemble The New Christy Minstrels, a group that Potash joined two years later during the height of its considerable popularity.

Prior to the bit of fame and fortune enjoyed by Art and Paul, Podell had become friends back in Greenwich Village with another struggling young folksinger, Peter Yarrow. Yarrow's roommate at Cornell University, Leonard Lipton, had written a fragmentary children's poem about a dragon that Yarrow had completed and for which he had written a melody. Yarrow shared the newly-completed "Puff, The Magic Dragon" with Podell right around the time that Warner Brothers Records, also looking for a successful folk act, had united Yarrow with Noel "Paul" Stookey and the late Mary Travers to form the trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

As Art Podell's introduction on this rare recording indicates, the Art and Paul duo was so taken with Yarrow's composition that they added it to their concert sets. The recording here features Podell's and Potash's distinctive arranging style in rhythm and harmony.

Video images are of Art and Paul, of their first album, of other albums on which Podell played, along with later pictures of the New Christy Minstrels and Podell in a recent photo.