Mary Travers, R.I.P.

Originally posted September 17, 2009

From today’s online edition of the New York Times:

Mary Travers, whose ringing, earnest vocals with the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary made songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” enduring anthems of the 1960s protest movement, died on Wednesday at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. She was 72 and lived in Redding, Conn.

The cause was complications from chemotherapy associated with a bone-marrow transplant she had several years ago after developing leukemia, said Heather Lylis, a spokeswoman.

Ms. Travers brought a powerful voice and an unfeigned urgency to music that resonated with mainstream listeners. With her straight blond hair and willowy figure and two bearded guitar players by her side, she looked exactly like what she was, a Greenwich Villager directly from the clubs and the coffeehouses that nourished the folk-music revival.

I recall vague bits and pieces of the career of Peter, Paul & Mary: The folk revival of the early 1960s, it’s always seemed to me, rested firmly on the shoulders of the trio brought together by manager Albert Grossman. That’s probably not entirely fair to groups like the Kingston Trio, the Highwaymen and a few others, but it’s not far off the mark to say that once PP&M came along, their visual and musical impact pushed the other folk performers of the day to no better than second place.

In personal terms, I can measure their impact by the simple fact that in 1963 or so, I knew who they were. I saw them on television at times, and I was aware – coming at the fact from the news end rather than the music end; as I’ve said before, I’ve always been a news junkie – that they were active in the Civil Rights movement: The trio performed “If I Had A Hammer” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” during the 1963 March on Washington.

I don’t think we ever had any of the group’s LPs in the house. For some reason, we had the sheet music to “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” in our pile of songbooks and songs; it was likely my sister’s. And I knew “Lemon Tree,” the song that brought Peter, Paul & Mary their first hit (No. 35 during the summer of 1962), but I knew it from the version by Trini Lopez. Still, their music was somehow part of the background as I grew up.

The last of their twelve Top 40 hits came along not long after radio and I became friends: “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” which had been on 1967’s Album 1700, went to No. 1 and was inescapable during the autumn and early winter of 1969. (Their other Top Ten hits were “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song),” “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” all in 1963, and the winking “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” in 1967.) And I remember all of those, even if I wasn’t paying much attention for a large part of the time.

Beyond the music, the trio had a cultural impact, too: The sight of the mustaches and goatees on Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey and of Travers’ long and straight blonde hair brought to the mainstream a safe version of the style of the bohemian folk and beat movements of the 1950s. Though some in the folk movement criticized Peter, Paul & Mary for, essentially, having sold out, their style bridged a gap and made folk music palatable and accessible to a broader audience.

And one gets the impression that the message in the music was the important point, at least most of the time. Along with a couple of other tracks on Album 1700, “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was fairly inconsequential with its sly lyrical and aural references to the Mamas and the Papas. (There’s an interesting linkage there, as the Mamas and the Papas were also seen by some as having sold out, performing radio-friendly folk-pop while wearing hippie fashions.) But most of the trio’s music was thoughtful as well as listenable.

Perhaps the last word here about the importance of the message in the music should go to Travers herself. In its online edition today, the New York Daily News quoted Travers from an undated interview:

“I’m not sure I want to be singing ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ when I’m 75 . . . But I know I’ll still be singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’”

A Six-Pack of Peter, Paul & Mary
“If I Had A Hammer” from Peter, Paul & Mary [1962]
“500 Miles” from Peter, Paul & Mary [1962]
“Hush-A-Bye” from In The Wind [1963]
“No Other Name” from Album 1700 [1967]
“The Song Is Love” from Album 1700 [1967]
“All My Trials” from In The Wind [1963]

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