Peter, Paul, and Mary arrive in Tokyo (1964) to play for military audiences
(Photo courtesy Stars and Stripes)
Stan Lee. Aretha Franklin. Charles Aznavour. Tom Wolfe. Neil Simon…
As if confounded by the inability of wealth or fame to resist the predations of time, we stand, incredulous, before the deaths of our celebrities, watching as their lives begin to fade against the horizon of history.
Sometimes we grieve. Sometimes we become nostalgic. Sometimes we become nervous, aware that the passing of yet another famous face is a marker of sorts: a memento mori, a reminder that our years, too, are passing, and that the fate of others soon enough will be our own.
Occasionally, the response is more personal. When I learned of Mary Travers’s passing in 2009, I wasn’t surprised. Her struggles with leukemia had been well documented, and her death in a Danbury, Connecticut hospital at the age of 72 was the natural outcome of a long process. Still, it stirred some memories.
I’d first become aware of Travers when she joined with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey to begin making music around New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s; the trio swept into American consciousness with an irresistible combination of intensity and cool. Herb Caen, celebrated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, coined the term “beatnik” in a 1958 column that might have taken lanky, blond Mary and her goatee-wearing pals as models.
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. Within weeks of purchasing the album, I’d memorized the lyrics and chords for each of its songs, as had most of my friends. Later generations might moonwalk or play air guitar, but in our 1960s basements and bedrooms, we strummed and harmonized.
Folk harmonies sounded ‘nice’ to an older generation unsure about Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis, so our parents found it easy to smile approvingly while we listened and sang. In time, the songs’ lyrics would begin to balance the sweetness of those harmonies, resonating in a way rendered sharper and more pointed by changing circumstance and our own maturation. But in the beginning, it was the fun of singing along that drew us in.
One day, news of a concert appeared in the Des Moines Register — Peter, Paul, and Mary would be playing the KRNT Theater in Des Moines. Immediately, four high-schoolers set about nagging four sets of parents for permission to attend. When our parents agreed, my friends and I hardly knew how to respond. It was to be our first live concert, our first trip without chaperones to an out-of-town event, and our first exhilarating taste of an adult social life.
The concert, a two-hour performance before a sold-out crowd, seemed far too short. At its conclusion, unwilling for the night to end, we searched out a well-known coffee house on the edge of the Drake University campus and settled in among the mix of patrons, trying not to call attention to ourselves.
We needn’t have worried. Shortly after our coffee arrived, Peter, Paul, and Mary arrived as well, drawing all of the attention to themselves. After ordering, they began working the room, chatting and signing autographs as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Inevitably, someone asked if they’d sing another song. Rather than declining outright, they suggested they’d be happy to reprise Lemon Tree if we would join them in the chorus. And so we sang: beautiful, ethereal Mary, puckish Peter, and quiet Paul leading their awe-stricken fans down paths of melody like a trio of Bohemian pied pipers.
Many decades later, browsing web postings about Mary’s death, I discovered a similar account of a KRNT concert in the comment section of Rzine, a former publication of Rhino Records.
John Hagelston had told the story of a visit by the trio to the company’s headquarters. It was a typical account of an entirely pleasant day: a mix of a little business, a little singing, and some time for employees to meet and chat with the musicians.
Imagine my surprise when I found this comment, left by an anonymous reader:
My girl friend and I 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 the 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.
So 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 week nights. I always wondered how the “regulars” would have reacted to an impromtu jam session with Peter Yarrow.
I’ve always wished I could have told that anonymous commenter that Peter had his opportunity to visit the coffee house on a Saturday night, and that he brought Paul and Mary with him.
Over the years, I enjoyed other concerts by the group — in Iowa City, in Telluride, in San Francisco — but none of the performances exceeded the pleasure of that intimate coffee house evening. Still, by the time they joined together to perform on April 24, 1971 at the Washington, D.C. march to protest the Vietnam war, the context for their music had changed. No one who attended that march — or followed events connected to the civil rights protests of the 1960s — ever will forget the power of their collective voice.
“If I Had a Hammer” ~ written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes
I last heard the group in Texas, at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Mary, who had been quite ill and hospitalized, flew in for a single performance. Walking with a cane and obviously suffering the effects of her treatments, she remained dignified, good-humored and honest about the realities of her life.
Despite being in less than good voice and despite needing physical support from time to time, she sang on. As the sun set and stars rose, tears fell among audience members compelled to face the truth. It would be the last time we would see Peter, Paul, and Mary together on stage.
To remember Mary Travers today is to remember a woman whose voice stirred 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 Travers’s 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. Weary of bureaucratic wrangling, sick to death of pettiness, pessimism, and every sort of posturing along the full length of the political spectrum, I wonder: is it possible that the old songs might once again stir hearts grown accustomed to seeking 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 while Mary Travers has laid her hammer down, it may be time for those who remain to pick it up. There are sisters and brothers among us who need to hear her song.