September 18, 2009

Goodbye, Mary Travers

Mary Travers, the “Mary” of Peter, Paul & Mary, died Wednesday from complications of treatment for leukemia. She was 72.

When I heard the news on the car radio the night of Mary Travers’ death, it was hard for me to believe that PP&M was no more. I first heard their wonderful music when I was in high school, and I have listened to their songs with varying regularity ever since. I own more of their albums than those of any other singer or singing group. I bought them over a long period; PP&M had a long run. Happily, some of those albums are products of a reunion that took place after what seemed like the breakup of the group in 1970. (Beatles fans, eat your heart out.)

I loved Peter, Paul & Mary. I loved their clean-cut, yet slightly funky look. I loved their evident joy in singing together, as well as their passion both for their music and its often provocative message. I loved their stage presence. Most of all, I loved their sound, polished and harmonious—the kind of sound that made a choral singer like me melt (and want to sing along).PP&M Debut Album Jacket I wasn’t actually in love with Mary, but one could not but be struck by her long, straight blond hair and what others have called her drop-dead gorgeous looks.

“Peter, Paul & Mary” was one of the first popular LPs I ever bought. (I might have bought the Kingston Trio’s first album before I discovered PP&M.) I was introduced to PP&M by the first girl I ever dated. She was a bit older than I, and, although we never really became an item, the association of a first date and my introduction to PP&M was certainly a pleasant one. For many years, I eagerly purchased every album the group released. I also bought Mary’s first solo album, which was lovely, but which lacked the appeal of PP&M. My post-reunion collection of CDs is incomplete, but I may have to change that.

I am not fond of pop concerts, and I have attended few of them. Ticket prices are high, and getting close to the stage is often impossible. There are usually too many people at such events, and the sound is invariably inferior to the recorded sound one is used to listening to. Nonetheless, I attended two PP&M concerts years apart, and I don’t regret paying for tickets that put me near the stage. PP&M were exciting to watch, as well as to listen to. I cherish the thrill of experiencing the group live.

When I was introduced to PP&M, I described myself as a political conservative. Although the politics of the group were for many years different from my own, I could not help but listen to their music and at least think about their lyrics. (One could always understand the lyrics, of course, a feature not universal in the popular music universe.) And their presence at events such as the 1963 March on Washington made a powerful statement. In the end, I’m not sure that I can say that PP&M converted me to liberalism, but they may have had something to do with it. Music, after all, calls forth a powerful emotional response. Album Jacket of “Moving”(I have often thought that unions had the success they did because they had better songs than the corporations they struggled against.)

Of course, Peter, Paul & Mary required Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, in addition to Mary Travers. It is difficult not to think of the bronze-toned voice of Mary Travers as the glue that held their sound together and was, in large measure, responsible for the success of the group. I am bemused by the Kingston Trio’s ability to swap personnel over the years and remain the “Kingston Trio.” It is difficult to imagine PP&M without Peter Yarrow or Paul Stookey. It is impossible to imagine the group without Mary Travers.

With the death of Mary Travers, I feel a very personal, very emotional loss. I thank God that she touched my life. In a small way, I feel what her friends and fellow singers have had to say (I have made minor changes in capitalization):
I have no idea what it will be like to have no Mary in my world, in my life, or on stage to sing with. But I do know there will always be a hole in my heart, a place where she will always exist that will never be filled by any other person. However painful her passing is, I am forever grateful for Mary and her place in my life.

— Peter Yarrow

I am deadened and heartsick beyond words to consider a life without Mary Travers and honored beyond my wildest dreams to have shared her spirit and her career.

— Noel Paul Stookey

In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested a contribution to the Mary Travers Healthcare Fund at Danbury (Conn.) Hospital.

Album art courtesy Rhino Records.

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