Honored, recognized, hidden or charicatured, the death of celebrity fascinates us. As if amazed that wealth and fame present no obstacle to the predations of time, we stand arrested, staring in puzzlement as the lives of those we imagined to be immortal begin to fade against the horizon of history. Sometimes we grieve. More often we become nostalgic or nervous, aware that the passing of this stranger is a marker of sorts, a memento mori, a reminder that our years, too, are passing and the fate of others is our own.
Now and then, the grief is more personal. When I learned Mary Travers had died, I wasn’t surprised. Her struggles with leukemia have been well documented, and her death at a Danbury, Connecticut hospital at the age of 72 was the natural outcome of a long process.
When she joined Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey in the early 1960s to begin making music in Greenwich Village, the trio caught on immediately, sweeping into our 1950s lives with an irresistable combination of intensity and cool. Herb Caen, celebrated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, might have been envisioning the lanky blond and goateed guitarists when he coined his term “beatnik” in a 1958 column.
Their 1962 debut album, Peter, Paul & Mary, contained two of their biggest hits, Lemon Tree and the multiple Grammy Award-winning If I Had a Hammer. It was one of the first albums I purchased for myself, and within weeks I’d memorized each of its songs. Later generations might learn to moonwalk or play air guitar in their basements and bedrooms, but high schoolers of the ’60s learned to harmonize.
Best of all, Peter, Paul and Mary weren’t rock’n’roll. Their music sounded “nice”, making it easy for parents unsure about Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis to smile approvingly while we listened, even as we wondered what it was about the music that stirred us so profoundly. Later, the cautionary tone of the first track on their first album began to resonate in a new way, rendered sharper and more pointed by circumstance.
The trio quickly became a sensation, and my love for their music continued to grow. I bought a second album, and then a third. In a bit of good fortune so unexpected it seemed impossible, the news appeared one day in the Des Moines Register: Peter, Paul and Mary were coming to town for a concert at the KRNT Theater. Remarkably, my parents agreed I should be allowed to attend with a friend. It was to be my first live concert, my first trip to “the city” for an event, and my first exhilarating taste of a “grown-up” social life.
What happened next was extraordinary. That I found another bit of the story on the web while browsing after Mary’s death makes it even more so.
Writing for Rhino records’ Rzine, John Hagelston tells the story of a visit by Peter, Paul and Mary to the company’s headquarters. It was a typical and entirely pleasant day, with a little business, a little singing and time for employees to meet and chat with the musicians.
What made the account so extraordinary was this comment, one of seven appended to the article by an anonymous reader.
My girl friend and I had attended a concert given by the trio during the late 1960’s in Des Moines, Iowa. After the concert, the trio were signing autographs and interacting with fans in their usual fashion and I got up the nerve to ask Peter if he needed a ride to his hotel. Amazingly, after exchanging glances with us between autographs for what seemed a long time, he brought the autograph session to a close, approached the two of us and said he would alert his manager to the situation.
Off we went, the three of us… Peter asked if there were any coffee shops on the university campus where local talent performed but, unfortunately, the only such establishment closed early on weeknights. I had always wondered how the “regulars” would have reacted to an impromtu jam session with Peter Yarrow.
My friends and I attended our concert on Saturday night. In no hurry to leave Des Moines, we searched out a coffee house on the edge of the Drake University Campus known for late hours. When Peter, Paul and Mary arrived, ordered coffees and began working the room, chatting and signing autographs as though it were the most natural thing in the world, the sense of unreality was palpable.
They declined the invitation to play another song, but suggested they’d be happy to lead us in a singing of Lemon Tree, and so we sang ~ beautiful, ethereal Mary, Puckish Peter and quiet Paul leading their awe-stricken fans down the paths of melody like a trio of Bohemian pied pipers.
I saw them perform again – in Iowa City, in Telluride, in San Francisco – but none of those performances equaled the intimate coffee house evening until they joined together to perform on April 24, 1971 at the Washington, D.C. march to protest the Vietnam war. No one who attended that march or followed the events ever will forget the power of their collective voice.
The last time I saw the group was in Texas at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Mary had been quite ill, and flew into Kerrville for one performance. Recently hospitalized, walking with a cane and suffering the obvious effects of her treatment, she remained dignified, good-humored and honest about the realities of her life. While not in good voice and needing physical support from time to time, she sang on as the sun set, the stars rose and tears fell throughout an audience compelled to face the truth of that night. It would be the last time most of us would see Peter, Paul and Mary together on stage.
To grieve Mary Travers today is to grieve a woman whose voice stirred up longings and aspirations in an emerging generation as surely as she expressed those aspirations to the world. Clear-eyed in her approach to life, graced with remarkable toughness and an extra allotment of kindness, she maintained her commitment to causes of peace and justice to the very end.
Reflecting on her life, fellow group member Peter Yarrow mused, “Mary always was honest and completely authentic. That’s the way she sang, too ~ honestly and with complete authenticity.”
Listening to Mary Travers’ songs and tracing her path through the decades, I feel again the surge of hope and possibility that rang out in that honest and authentic voice. Tired of bureaucratic wrangling, sick to death as I am of pettiness, pessimism and every sort of posturing along the full length of the political spectrum, I wonder: in death as in life, is it possible that Mary Travers’ hammer, bell and song once again may stir hearts grown accustomed to seek not justice, but partiality, not freedom, but advantage? Is it possible that clear and authentic voices once again will ring out over the din of manipulated rancor?
Only time will tell. But as Mary Travers lays her hammer down, it may be time for those who remain and remember to pick it up again. There are sisters and brothers among us who need to hear her song.