Justice and Freedom ~ But Most of All, Love

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.

mary

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.

maryalbum

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.

marykerrville2001

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.

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about the history of the song “If I Had a Hammer.”

Civics 101

The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 ~ Erich Lessing, Magnum Photos

On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday.  There was cake, ice cream, and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers.  On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents, and neighbors dared to cheer an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and, somewhat later, as the Hungarian Revolution.

As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps on the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying on the dining room table, where my father always laid it before going upstairs to shave. A huge photograph filled the space above the fold, with the words “Revolution In Hungary” splashed across the top. Continue reading

Living Tradition

Flag Ceremony, Camp Hantesa ~ Boone, Iowa, c. 1955

I suspect each of us has experienced the ability of a song to transport us back in time to a particularly memorable place or experience. The driving beat of John Stewart’s “Gold” will do it for me, as will Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” or The Sweet Talks’ Afro-Funk gem, “Akumpaye.”

But more than songs enliven memory. When an especially sharp, clear rendition of reveille caught my attention at work one recent morning, I turned to find its source. A group of teenagers from that week’s sailing camp had gathered around the yacht club’s flagpole. With reveille concluded, the national anthem began, and hands went to hearts as they watched the American flag being raised.
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Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers. Continue reading

Spending Time

On the timeless prairie

Amid a flurry of autumn traditions old and new — carved jack-o-lanterns, homecomings, pumpkin spice latte —  discussions of a less happy tradition arise, inevitable as falling leaves. As the clock adjustments required by the end of daylight saving time grow nearer,  a little inconsequential and mostly congenial grumping about the practice can be heard across the land.

Some don’t care which official time prevails; they only wish for an end to switching back and forth. Others, in favor of keeping the practice, argue the case for a national policy. Most seem to consider the fuss over “falling back” or “springing forward” nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns. Continue reading

Time To Take A Breath

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C. ~ September, 1926
(Library of Congress)

Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, you’ve no doubt noticed that things in our nation have been a little chaotic of late. Confrontation, confusion, accusations and counter-accusations: all have played a role in roiling the civic waters.  As one of my dear Southern friends likes to say, “I’m plumb wore out.” Continue reading

Going Small, and Coming Home

With no rain to ruin the concerts and no drought to curtail the fireworks, Houston’s annual Freedom Over Texas festival has been expanded into what promoters call an “extraordinary extravaganza” — a day-long series of Independence Day concerts and amusements meant to conclude with a  “spectacular” fireworks display.

The festival exemplifies the sort of hyperbolic excess dear to the hearts of civic boosters everywhere. Washington, D.C. is promoting its own traditional fireworks as “spectacular,” and of course New York City will be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks.” Boston intends to celebrate “in a big way,” while San Francisco will provide “magnificent” and “breath-taking” sights. Not to be outdone, San Diego, Key West, Little Rock, and Huntington Beach have upped their game, promising to rival even the nationally televised shows. Every year, program planners around the country seem determined to live by the well-known rule: “Go big, or go home.”
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