Record Machine: “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary

It’s that scene in Armageddon that helped this song persist, isn’t it? Between Ben Affleck and his stomach-traversing animal crackers, and the fact that people tend to only remember the title of the song (and reference it every flippin’ time they get on an airplane), this John Denver-penned song continues to float about the public consciousness since its release in 1967.

Peter Paul and Mary - Leaving on a Jet Plane
Pretend like this is in focus and that my paisley jammies add to the late ’60s ambiance.

Originally, John Denver wrote the song in 1966 and titled it “Babe, I Hate to Go,” before a producer convinced him to change it to the title we know now. Peter, Paul and Mary loved the song, and it became their last hit when released as a single in 1969. The Chad Mitchell Trio and Spanky and Our Gang also released covers around the same time. Denver himself put the song on his debut solo album, Rhymes and Reasons, in 1969.

Lots of leaving on jet planes. So many, many jet planes.

I must admit, this song doesn’t do a lot for me. Mary Travers has a lovely voice, and I respect what Peter, Paul and Mary did for folk music as a whole, but the thing I find most interesting about “Leaving on a Jet Plane” is when Travers deliberately quiets her voice partway through, beckoning us to lean in closer for her goodbye. It’s a good choice, and of course, the three of them together were excellent at harmonies.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have any nostalgic cultural touchstones associated with this song. Not even being a teenager in the ’90s got me in terms of the ubiquitous Age of Afflecktion, and I’m not old enough to associate it with Vietnam.

My dad would have been 14 years old upon the release of this single, and for some reason he felt the need to engrave his name onto the non-playing portion of the vinyl — you can’t really see it in the photo, but it’s right above where it says “Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records.” Perhaps the song was so popular, that even my notoriously picky lender of a father had been convinced to let his friends take the song home. Or maybe he’d just received a Dremel and was engraving everything. Who knows, but so far, it’s the only record in my collection so far with that, uh, feature.

So am I alone in my “Leaving on a Jet Plane” indifference? Is it just some cultural blind spot, and the rest of you are awash in fond memories? Maybe you’re a sucker for all things folk? I’m sure I watched some sort of Behind The Music-esque special on Peter, Paul and Mary at some point in my life, and I remember a brief obsession with “Puff The Magic Dragon” as a kid — drug references flying above my head, naturally — but other than that, they have yet to do much for me. My disinterest is certainly no judgment on those listeners who love them — do your thing, love what you love, etc. — but if it weren’t for that funny little “D. Smith” engraving, I doubt I’d be talking about this song at all.

What say you? Is this your easy listening jam?

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

2 replies on “Record Machine: “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary”

I do love this song! Growing up, Peter Paul and Mary was on constant rotation in my mom’s car, along with Cat Stevens. I knew the song was sad but I still thought it was pretty and I’d always sing along. On the gloomy side of their repertoire, I also loved 500 Miles, Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright. But I also dug Lemon Tree and If I Had a Hammer, which are actually pretty kid-friendly.

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