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.”

After Inauguration: A Poem for Us All

peopleyes Fireborn
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother.
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise.
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
“Where to? what next?”
excerpted from “The People, Yes” by American poet Carl Sandburg

Continue reading

The Power of the People

Never mind the traditional excesses of Thanksgiving, the horrors of Black Friday or the panic of the pre-Christmas rush. For afficionados of the sport of people-watching, the up-coming holiday season is the best season of the year. With crowds of impatient adults and captive children navigating the stormy seas of covetousness and retail madness from now until New Year’s Day, amusement should be easy to find.

In fact, I’ve already been amused. During a swing through our local Target store, I found myself waiting in the checkout line behind a child and his mother. The boy appeared to be about three, and he was fussy.  Hanging on to his mother’s skirt with both hands, he circled around and around until he found a comfortable spot, sandwiched between his mother and the cart. 

Peeking out from the folds of her skirt, he looked past us to the vibrant displays of candy and merchandise across the aisle. Using one hand to point to something, he tugged on her skirt with the other to gain attention.  Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him while the rest of us started paying attention. Continue reading

The Marketplace of Ideas

I like to think of myself as fairly easy-going, but I don’t cope well with garage sales.

Over the years, I’ve prowled my share and even found a treasure or two, like these mint condition Woolenius tiles manufactured in Berkeley in the early 1900s. But artifacts of the Arts and Crafts movement are hard to come by, and the thought of hours spent pawing through plastic soap dishes and mismatched cutlery no longer appeals. People with growing children in need of clothing or toys, inveterate readers, Ebay resellers or folks with truly limited income no doubt have a different perspective.  But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify my life.  In my world,  garage sales rarely meet real needs. They provide little more than a few hours of distraction and an indiscriminate pile of “stuff”  to be hauled home and squirreled away before being “repurposed” by sending it off to Goodwill. Continue reading

Space, Lemons and Lemonade

So. Houston doesn’t get one of the real space shuttles. Fine.  As a friend with ties to NASA says, “What would you expect from people who can’t even get our most famous quotation right?” 

Of course she’s talking about the film Apollo 13 and the transformation of astronaut Jack Swigert’s, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here” into “Houston, we have a problem”.  The film makers had their reasons for the change, and it certainly didn’t detract from the film or from the space program. Still, a lot of things have been irritating folks since the announcement that Johnson Space Center will be home not to Discovery, Enterprise, Endeavour or Atlantis, but to Explorer, a shuttle replica built with a high percentage of plywood.

Be that as it may, communities surrounding Johnson Space Center have unbreakable ties with NASA. We continue to embody the spirit that enlivened our nation’s space program and we certainly know how to party. This weekend was party-time in Houston, as the city engaged in “Shuttlebration”, a city-wide tribute to the role of space exploration in our lives. Continue reading

The Yard Sale of Ideas


I like to think I’m a fairly easy-going sort.  I get along with most people who cross my path and I’m able to fulfill most of life’s responsibilities without too much grumbling, but there are things that drive me crazy. 

Yard sales (aka “garage sales”, “tag sales” or “rummage sales”) fit that category.  I can’t think of anything worse than spending a perfectly good day pawing through piles of stuff that other people have judged not worth keeping.  I’d much rather be reading or writing, spending a day at the beach or even cleaning my house. 

People with growing children and limited incomes, inveterate readers, quilters and crafters, Ebay re-sellers or folks with a passion for the act of buying have a different perspective, I’m sure.  But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify.  In my life, yard sales don’t help meet real needs.  They provide little more than a few hours of distraction and a pile of purchases which need to be hauled home, hidden away and then handed over to the next neighbor who decides to hold a yard sale. Continue reading

All Dressed Up with Somewhere to Go

 

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 celebrated an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and later as the Hungarian Revolution.

As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying in its accustomed place 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.  

At that point in my life I never had met a Hungarian and had little idea what a revolution might entail.  But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. Curious to see what required such large print and such a big picture, I paused to look at the paper, only to have  my mind wiped as clean of thought as our classroom blackboards at day’s end. Gripped by a strange, vertiginous feeling, I realized I was holding my breath as my first, visceral understanding of a world far larger than my own and far less pleasant began to envelop me. Continue reading