Picking Up Mary Travers’ Hammer


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.

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

17 thoughts on “Picking Up Mary Travers’ Hammer

  1. It’s sort of a “fourth wall” you broke – or they broke – by sitting and jawing with “regulars” in a coffee shop. They stepped out of performance mode (sort of a fiction, I suppose, if I’m going to make the fourth wall fit), into real life. And their doing that altered their performance too, making them more admired and accessible – and validating their humane message.

    It IS astonishing how much weight we give celebrities, through our attentions, time, admiration, disappointment, whatever it might be on a given day, based on their performances and personal hiccups. But that we do so makes it not such a surprise then when an encounter like the one you had takes on immense significance and gets fused in our memory as a seminal moment in time. Having this kind of opportunity with someone you admire so much (as Loring mentioned happened for him with Utah Phillips) and who has had such an impact on your life, shaping you, well that is just plain ole good stuff that you can almost sink your teeth into. It would keep me awake at night, reliving it.


    One of the most interesting things about the group is related to the same honesty and authenticity Peter remarked as characteristics of Mary. When I attended the concert in Kerrville near the end of their touring career, the performance differed very little if at all from the first concert I attended in Des Moines. Whether they were on stage in Golden Gate Park, on the steps of the US Capitol or just hanging out in a coffee house, they were Peter, Paul and Mary – nothing more, or less.

    It gives their music a certain timelessness. One of the most severe critics I know – a fifth grader – happened by with her mother yesterday. One of their songs was playing and it stopped her cold. “Who IS that?”, she asked. I showed her a picture and we went looking for another song. “I like them,” she said. “Did they ever do a CD?”

    I suspect a lot of aging boomers will be handing out CDs to kids in the next few weeks. The times may change, but good music endures.


  2. Linda,

    This has me all teary.
    This is the first I knew of it.
    Where have I been? shunning media and outside input for a few days as I work.
    And then I come over to visit.
    This is lovely.
    ‘Scuse me while I go put some of their music on.
    Yes, I still have that album that you picture with the 3 of them against the brick wall.
    Here’s to Mary.


    I learned of it through Twitter. I was working late myself, and as is my practice now I dropped by Twitter to check the trending topics before I went to bed. Mary was on the list, so I did a search and discovered the sad news.

    I’m still astonished to think about this: I haven’t heard one word on television of her passing. Whether that’s due to my viewing habits, lack of coverage or simple happenstance I’m not sure, but it saddens me beyond belief that her death received perhaps 1/1000th of the coverage Michael Jackson’s did. I suppose today basic black and pearls just doesn’t make it when pitted against fushia leather and white sequined gloves. Sigh.

    In any event, the music remains, and it’s as wonderful as ever. Even when they were covering other artists’ work they were able to put their absolutely recognizable stamp on it, and for a lot of us their versions remain the standard.

    I don’t think any musician has had more direct impact on my life. Here’s to Mary, indeed.


  3. I had not heard about her death, either. And now, finally, this silly machine has allowed me to actually hear the music. That has made me teary.

    You must understand that my first exposure to Peter Paul & Mary was “Puff, the Magic Dragon”. The folksongs came much later. Your concert experience is nothing short of magical. A memory to treasure (as I know you do). At long last, that particular white dove has found her patch of sand. May she be at peace.

    Thank you.


    While the first concert experience was wonderful, their appearances at the Kerrville Folk Fest are more memorable. It’s hard to describe that venue – think Woodstock combined with a Renaissance Faire combined with an up-scale kids’ camp. Throw in craft vendors from Telegraph Avenue and a thousand of your most nostalgic, guitar-playing friends and you’ve got it! Everyone’s approachable at Quiet Valley Ranch, the festival grounds, and they were among the most approachable.

    I must admit – there’s something slightly unnerving about readers telling me they first met PP&M when they learned “Puff” in kindergarten! I mentioned to someone else that it may be time for me to start listening to their “kids” songs now. In many ways, I’m much younger than I was at ten!


  4. In primary school in the mid-60s we used to sing Peter, Paul and Mary songs all the time. As a kid I thought they were ancient tunes, timeless…which is what they’ve turned out to be.

    I was at work when the news of her death came over the wires. A German colleague from across the building phones up and says, “Do you know Mary?” I guess he was testing a North American to see if it was worth putting on German TV news. Anyway, I was unsure who he was talking about – perhaps a colleague? Then I twigged – AH – from Peter, Paul and Mary!


    There’s the word I needed – “timeless” – although I’m feeling just a little ancient myself, hearing people talk about singing PP&M in primary school! All I got was Dick and Jane and the “itsy, bitsy spider”. Humph.

    Amusing to think of you as the token North American – glad you were able to hold up our honor! And I have to say, I still love hearing people who work in the field say things like “news of her death came over the wires”. I can hear the typewriters and smell the ink ;-)


  5. Such a lovely memory, and a fab post, as usual.


    Oh, thank you so much. Was there much attention paid to her death in your part of the world? I’ve just been realizing I never was aware of the group doing much overseas touring. They may have, of course, but it was a much different world in the 60s and 70s – no internet or youtube to help people become familiar with musicians, for one thing.

    It’s always lovely to have you stop by – I appreciate it!


  6. What intrigues me so much about this particular death this year of famous deaths, Linda, is that there were two very specific things we passed on to our (now grown) children that is still to this day palpable: University of Michigan football and Peter, Paul & Mary. Everything else dims in comparison.

    We were fortunate to hear Paul alone in concert at our Pasadena church years ago when our kids were little, but it wasn’t the same. Bill and I also heard the three in the 60s but my greatest memory was sharing them with daughter Amy at our outdoor amphitheater here in Atlanta a few years back. It was a mother-daughter moment we will never forget. Ironically, SHE was the one who gave me the news of Mary’s death this past week…but not before she had already introduced her son, now 9, to the trio a couple years ago…while we all carved pumpkins for Halloween. He quickly learned all those original songs by heart. These are the things we never forget. And in our case, yes, we represent 3 generations of passing on The Gift!


    I’ve had opportunity to hear Peter Yarrow as a solo act, and it just wasn’t the same. Certainly I don’t begrudge individual artists the right to move on, particularly when circumstances as well as artistic impulses contribute to the choice. But this group’s sound, their association with so many events critical to our nation’s history and their embodiment of a certain time – they just belong together.

    When you speak of passing on the gift, it reminds me, too, that PP&M were critical in making our generation aware of a whole variety of American folk singers whose work they built on – the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family. In a sense, they did for folk music what Eric Clapton did for Robert Johnson, but we’re going to need someone else to start the process again.


  7. Oops! I did not mean to unnerve you. I should have added that my second exposure was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which we sang on the school bus. The curse of being a generation “in between”–tail end of “boomer,” definitely not “Generation X”–is that one gets all of the cultural exposure, but none of the cultural knowledge that defines an epoch.

    Thus I missed Woodstock, but also escaped the mosh pit; knew “Puff” but missed “If I had a Hammer.” The first was a gain, the second a definite loss. Until this piece. Thanks for being tuned in–and staying young!


    That business of being on the edge can be interesting – because I was one of the very first boomers, born in 1946, much of my growing up was still heavily influenced by memories of the Depression and a quite different world. And the music was very different – the Big Band era was in full swing (!) and I was learning songs from vocalists like Gogi Grant and Perry Como. Of course it wasn’t long until Jimmy Rogers, Fats Domino and Elvis started ooching things in a new direction, and it was a direction we youngsters liked.

    What amazes me is how much influence generational preferences can have. A friend once was pursued by a wonderful guy – intelligent, successful, funny – but she just couldn’t make herself even consider a serious relationship with him. When we asked why, she said, “He never stops listening to Glenn Miller”. The two of them were nearly the same age, but each fell on a different side of that generational divide, and couldn’t bridge the gap.

    Which makes Peter, Paul and Mary’s ability to do just that even more wonderful and amazing!


  8. A lovely tribute. Your words & Mary’s voice took me to many places. Time collapses in on itself as Mary’s sung words are just as relevant today as when they were first sung. Time collapses in on itself and eternity breaks open to let Mary in. May she at last find the peace she sang to. And we who are left behind — may we at least see its glimmer.


    As I said to someone recently, “Good music, better person”. She and the whole group were able to remind us of our better selves, over and over.
    It’s good for me to be listening to them again. As the wise saying goes, “Be careful which voices you listen to, for they will become the word you speak.”


  9. As usual, you lead me into an unexplored realm. Lovely poignant post, and a move through time into a softer, kinder era.


    I think part of the reason Mary’s death affected me so is that I am just tired, tired of the atmosphere in this country. Remembering her is my way of reminding myself – as well as others – that kindness and dignity can accompany commitment and passion.

    Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you’re enjoying your “time off”!


  10. I was sad when I heard the news. I used to sing those songs as if they were mine, and I can not sing a lick.

    I believed my grandchildren would be equally enchanted by their songs. I gave the book and CD of Puff The Magic Dragon to them a couple of years ago. My granddaughter fell in love with Puff. It’s her favorite bedtime story, and she sings every single word of the song. Her mother even made a Puff The Magic Dragon cake for her birthday. She sang Puff to me on the phone a few nights ago. Peter, Paul and Mary will always have another generation of fans waiting in the wings.

    Thank you for this post and for the videos. It was very moving to seen them at the Vietnam protest in D.C. We were all so young.


    We were young – and idealistic, and stupid, and hopeful, and somehow convinced that a single individual could make a difference in the sweep of history. The best part is, we somehow were right.

    As for Puff and Jackie – they’re just the right pair to help old folks be young again. I’m so glad you passed them on to your next generations!


  11. Oh, Linda,

    I’ve been away the last week, with no Internet, no iPhone, no newspapers… and now that I’ve got the chance to read your post, I learn about this sad, sad news of Mary’s passing! Of course, we all loved Peter, Paul and Mary when I was growing up in HK, my two older brothers and all my cousins! We had that record album on your post here, and several others. I still have them! You’re right about harmonizing, yes, and I knew all the parts that Mary sang, … your post brings back all the sentiments of bygone years, memories of growing up precocious, following my older brothers and cousins, and learning the meaning of the lyrics and melodies… I was only a grade school kid, but I just loved their music.

    Thank you for this wonderful post, now you’ve got me longing for something that had gone and would never come back… I’m afraid I can’t seem to feel such urge for freedom, justice, and nobility as the young in the past… But then, you can say it again, nostalgia, that gets us all tensed up for the past perfect. Anyway, thanks for the memories and striking that common chord in our hearts.


    After your Twitter post I had to laugh, as it was Twitter that alerted me to her death. It was such a strange feeling – I found out in the late evening, and couldn’t go to bed. I started browsing the youtube videos and so on, just remembering. She – and the whole group – were such an important part of my life.

    Isn’t it a strange feeling to have been out of touch and then come back to unexpected news? And yet for centuries or more that was the way it was for people – news traveled, but not at the speed of light. Do you know how Paul Reuter, of Reuters News Service, sent out news in the 1850s? By carrier pigeon! Even when I was a kid at camp, there was no telephoning back and forth. We wrote letters home to our folks, and received letters from them. It’s part of what made the newsreels at the movies so exciting – you got to see what was happening in the world. Let me go find my rocking chair…..

    Your comment about what is gone being gone, and about nostalgia, reminds me of a favorite line from Walker Percy: “To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle”. I think one of Mary’s gifts was that she always called us back to the present.


  12. My Peter, Paul and Mary was ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ from Captain Kangaroo. As a little kid I ran around singing ‘If I had a Hammer’ but it was decades later before I understood the significance of those words.

    Yours is the first tribute I have read to succeed in showing Mary and the guys as real people. So much of the news on her death focuses on the ‘iconic’ qualities of the music without showing the actual thinking and feeling people behind that music and message.


    Another friend told me she used to sing “If I had a hammer” every time she misplaced her – hammer! She thought for years the song was written by a frustrated carpenter.

    Thank you for the compliment. One of the great mysteries of writing I’m just beginning to grasp is the possibilities inherent in a technique I first heard about in sociology classes – imaginative reconstruction, or using fact, experience and imagination to flesh out a person or event. I certainly did that here, and I’m awfully happy so many people found it a worthy tribute for Mary.


  13. This post brought up a lot of feelings for me, too. In fact when you posted the first album cover and wrote this: “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.”… I thought I had written it, because I did exactly the same! That was my story — possibly the first record I bought myself, singing the songs…

    I love your personal story. Rick has one, so does my friend Carol, who knew Peter from camp and would get together during concert appearances here. I don’t have one — just lots of memories of performances, live and on video and listening to those great songs and singing along. A wonderful appreciation. Thank you.


    I didn’t realize there was a Michigan connection for Paul until I read a more complete biography of all three a couple of days ago. It amazes me how they found each other in the course of life, and simply started singing. When I visited my Aunt T in Manhattan for the first time, one of the places I went was Washington Square Park. I loved the Village, and the ambiance, and it delighted me even then to think of Mary being one of the anonymous ones, before she began to shine.

    Thank you for your appreciation. Keep enjoying that music!


  14. This was a lovely tribute to Mary – thank you, Linda. I am sure she is smiling from the stars.

    It was wonderful to drag up the memories from “those days” while reading your post… I would place my head exactly between the two hi-fi speakers (remember those dinosaurs?) to listen to my records. Beautiful music, much more simple times. I wish I could hear their message in the rap that goes pounding down my street day and night.

    (And what a great, coffee house story!)


    You know, I’ve been thinking about the musicians I’ve written about ~ Mary, Eric Clapton, T-Model Ford… All of them have been interesting and important to me because of the consonance between their music and their lives. It’s part of the reason I find them relatively easy to write about, I suppose. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, about Mary, and she surely deserves to be smiling when you consider how much true joy she brought to the world.

    And yes, those speakers were dinosaurs, but what amazing creatures! I still remember the demonstration record my dad got with our first stereo system. Remember the ping-pong games? Where the ball would bounce from one speaker to the other? Kids today never would believe it! I hardly believe it when I think about what I grew up with, and what we have today.

    As for rap ~ well, I try now and then. On the other hand, have you ever heard Shakespeare done hip-hop style? Puck’s soliloquy from Midsummer Night’s Dream is a hoot!

    Thanks so much for stopping by – I think you must be up to your elbows or worse in the challenges of a new year!


  15. When I showed up on campus at Wake Forest University early autumn 1962, I did not yet own nor had I read “The Education of Jonathan Beam,” Russell Brantly, about “Convention College.” I still had “Hang down your head Tom Dooley” in my head. Before I knew it, out on the back lawn (off the Quad) on the actual grass and ground with a modest amplification system in the flesh – Peter, Paul and Mary – in daylight – and I sat in awe and listened, hardly able to imagine what college that year and following was like!

    1. What a lovely memory. And didn’t I laugh about “Tom Dooley.” I had that album, too, and remember with great affection the ditty about the MTA, and of course “The Merry Minuet.

      There’s something almost unbearably old-fashioned about the thought of those concerts, where people actually listened to the music without yelling and screaming. Perhaps that’s why so many political events these days are mayhem: people have become accustomed to yelling rather than listening.

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