Just a few hours before I had heard that Mary Travers had died, I was listening to the song "Early in the Morning" on You Tube as sung by Colin Hanks on "Mad Men." That song is the first song on the first "Peter, Paul and Mary" album. It wasn't until maybe an hour after I had heard that she died that I realized I'd just been listening to one of their songs earlier that day. That made everything that much sadder for me.
Amidst all this contemporary tea party nonsense, the ugly rhetoric being thrown around, the sense that everything is falling apart, we have lost one of the voices in the struggle for freedom and civil liberties. It was once said about folksinger Malvina Reynolds that her protest songs sound gentle, but she doesn't protest gently. The same can be said for Mary Travers.
I have a CD boxed-set from a few years ago entitled "Washington Square Memories" which is the folk music from the era. One of the photos in the booklet shows a young, pretty, teenage blonde singing along with a girl in a guitar. The photo is dated 1954-55. I can give you three guesses as to who that young blonde is.
If you want the quintessential 60s folkie, I'd say it would be Mary Travers. This isn't to put down Joan Baez because I love her but Travers was the archetype of the folkie. She was a city dweller who would go down to Washington Square on the weekends and sing along. Eventually, she played the clubs, was discovered and recruited to be part of a folksinging trio. Yes, you heard me right - "recruited." "Peter, Paul and Mary" did not form spontaneously but were put together by a record company. This doesn't take away from any of their legacy for me (or the fact that, as a book I once read noted, that Mary was blonde whereas the true authentic folk singers all knew that it was the brunettes who were the most earnest, the type who carried a copy of "The Bell Jar" in their purses.)
So there's both a hint of authenticity and the commercial in the story of Mary Travers. But to me, it doesn't matter. What I remember are the songs. My mother had a few Peter, Paul and Mary albums and when we were growing up, she would often play them when she was doing the dishes after dinner or on lazy Sunday afternoons. My mother owned their first album, the one when Mary is holding a bouquet of flowers and the name of the group is written on chalk on a brick wall behind them. The song I seem to remember best, and I have no idea why, is "Lemon Tree." But the song I grew to love when I started listening to them on my own at the age of 17 is "If I Had a Hammer." Yes, in the era of hair metal and Funky Colmadenas, I went in the opposite direction.
It's because of the influence of "Peter, Paul and Mary" I went and discovered all these other wonderful, brilliant folk artists from that era and beyond. It's why I always feel as though I was born too late and wish that the Greenwich Village I knew was not the one where I worked for 6 years in the '00s but the Village of the 50s and 60s. I know I idealize it, smoky coffeehouses, acoustic music, beatniks but there has to really have been something there for the legend to grow. It sure beats all the Marc Jacobs boutiques that have taken over Bleecker Street.
Goodbye, Mary. Thanks for the fight, the music, your voice, your inspiration and everything else. I was going to try and end this with some reference to one of her songs, like "your soul is blowin' in the wind" or "now you're much further than 500 miles" but I think it's best to show my love and respect and just stop right here.