I remember having a conversation with Mary Travers on the radio some years back. She was delightful, full of spunk, humor and a truly generous spirit. And she was unpretentious, still slightly awestruck by her own life, I think. She lost her valiant fight against leukemia last Wednesday at 72. And the world is already a lesser place.
Without spouting from a shrill soap box, Mary talked about the importance of speaking out and speaking up, especially for those whose voices could not, would not be heard in a society that still harbored many obstacles for a lot of people.
Mary Travers was born in Kentucky, but she grew up in Greenwich Village. Always a progressive enclave, a haven for bohemians and artists, Mary's backyard would become the Mecca for beatniks and folkies in the late '50's and early '60's. Her family lived in the same building as Pete Seeger; she even sang back-up for the legend for a bit, and did a stint in an off-Broadway show featuring comedian Mort Sahl. But the daughter of journalists, Mary never thought she'd make a career out of singing. It was just a hobby, Some hobby. After Al Grossman ( who also managed Bob Dylan) picked her as "the girl",-- for her sex appeal as much as her voice-- to round out a trio that would also feature Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, a star career path was blazed faster than anyone could have predicted. She became the tall, sultry blonde flanked by two goateed guitar playing beatniks.
"It's funny," she said, "one minute were rehearsing 'Mary had a Little Lamb' in Noel's apartment and the next minute we have a hit record."
Peter, Paul & Mary's debut album, If I Had a Hammer, released in 1962, spawned two hits: the iconic title track, penned by Seeger, which quickly became an anti-war anthem and "Lemon Tree." It also garnered the trio the first two of their five Grammy Awards. Their popularity, which peaked in 1963 when they had three albums in Billboard's top 10 at the same time, would be unmatched by any folk group in history.
Singing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" at the famed 1963 March on Washington remained a highlight. "It was so thrilling. It's hard to explain the feeling, but we knew we were in the middle of something important," she said. Peter, Paul & Mary's recording of the song which sold over 300,000 copies in under two weeks also gave Dylan his first mainstream national attention.
Their '65 hit "Puff the Magic Dragon" sparked controversy when some critics suggested the song was really about the magical allure of marijuana and not about little Jackie Paper outgrowing his childhood figments. People said similar things about the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," claiming it was about a vivid LSD trip, even though John Lennon insisted it had been inspired by his son Julian's drawing.
It was "Puff" and other family friendly tunes like "The Marvelous Toy" that would launch the group into the children's arena. Their album Peter, Paul & Mommy won a best children's album Grammy in 1969.
In 1971, the trio disbanded for the first time, with each member pursuing solo projects,. Mary Travers went on to release five solo albums, and she became a popular speaker and often wrote op-ed articles for newspapers and magazines.
In the '80's and '90's the trio would reunite several times, recording and performing with a renewed sense of social activism. The trio that had become strong voices for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, took up anti-Apartheid, anti-nukes, gay rights, hunger etc.
I remember slipping in " Weave me the Sunshine" and even the politically charged "El Salvador" when I was music director at a pretty conservative little station in Connecticut. Somehow people didn't mind. Even those who didn't agree with their politics liked Peter, Paul & Mary. They may have been (aging) beatniks, but their authenticity, their endurance,the sheer joy that emanated from their performances, transcended politics and generations.
"Our creativity, our ability to emerge over the years was completely because of the music itself," Yarrow wrote in a tribute letter on the group's website. "There will always be a place in my heart where Mary Travers will always exist."
Paul Stookey, who wrote he was heartsick at her passing, recalled Mary as generous, witty and politically savvy. "She was the master/mistress of the cutting exit line. Once I was attempting to defend Ronald Reagan's educational policy and she interrupted me with 'Oh, for heaven's sake, do your homework.' Need I say, she was right?"
Tireless to the end, Mary Travers cared about so many causes, so many people. It may sound corny, I guess, but the world was her community. "If people recognize me, how can I not recognize them and their needs?" she said. That's why those family concerts the group had become famous for in their later years were so important to her. She was entertaining generations of fans, that's true. But beyond that,I think, she was enlisting them for a higher calling.
If I've learned anything, " she told me, "it's that it will take more than one generation to bring about change."
Mary Travers' voice, now forever blowin' in the wind, leaves behind so many songs and so much humanity,
R.I.P. Mary, you're already missed. You're still here.
Drive safe. Play nice. Think peace.