Celebrities die seemingly every day, but I was enough of a nerd that those who do didn’t have a formative enough influence in my life that I’m really affected by their death. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary is a different matter. She died today, the AP says, and I feel bereft, because she’s been a reassuring presence over the past few years. She and Peter and Paul would play a concert at Carnegie Hall, or occasionally even put out a new album, just to let us know that they were there, that they still cared, that they were there making their slow way through the Bush years just as we were. I have their 2003 album In These Times, whose title alone says enough about the sociopolitical context in which it was released. And it can’t have been too hard for Peter, Paul, and Mary to reopen the floodgates of song, as experienced as they were with performing to audiences marching against Vietnam. But when there is an anger and a sadness and a fighting spirit to their music, there is also innocence and whimsy and play—we learned and sang some of their songs in my Montessori preschool class. One of their albums, a cassette that we often played in the car when I was little, contained both the sweet, childlike “The Garden Song” and Woody Guthrie’s migrant workers’ anthem, “Pastures of Plenty.” They sang songs by Tom Paxton, by Guthrie and Seeger, by John Denver. They quietly incorporated progressive Christian themes into some of their music, particularly later in their career, but it would have been impossible for our atheist household to find fault with their themes of unity and friendship and love.
I always thought it was Mary who got the best parts in the group’s three part arrangements. She sang melody more often than harmony, and when the three would take turns singing the verses, she always got the best ones. She sings lead on “Pastures of Plenty” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Her verse of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is my favorite: “Mothers and fathers throughout the land/Don’t criticize what you can’t understand…” She often gets a verse later in the song, I think, the one at the critical juncture of the lyrics’ plot. In “Puff the Magic Dragon,” she sings the verse when Puff realizes Jacky is gone forever. It’s arguably the most important verse in the children’s song that is so much more than a children’s song, which says so much about the loss of innocence that was the second half of the 20th century.
If you’re listing “Peter, Paul, and Mary,” Mary comes last. It was never “Mary, Peter, and Paul.” But her voice stands among those of Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell as belonging to one of the strong women of conscience who popularized the antiwar songs and union songs and above all songs of a mass cultural movement written by less accessible folk artists. Mary Travers’ voice is instantly recognizable, and even though it’s a mellifluous alto, it always rises above those of her male colleagues. It’s strident. It’s beautiful. It believes in something.
I’m part of a group at school that gets together once a week to sing together: folk, country, blues, that sort of thing—anything that’s found in this book. We sing more than a few songs Peter, Paul, and Mary popularized—some of our favorites are “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Marvelous Toy.” We’re not a very political group, and most people didn’t grow up singing left-wing political music like I did. My attempts to teach the union songs and peace songs Peter, Paul, and Mary sing haven’t always gone over well. But I guess it’s just as well, then, that Peter, Paul, and Mary have had songs for every occasion, every mood, every political moment.
Here’s one of my favorite songs in the whole world, “If I Had a Hammer.” Now I’ll shut up, and you’ll watch that video. And listen to that Mary Travers’ voice. And see how much she believes what she’s singing—as may we all.