Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Memorium: Mary Travers

Peter Paul & Mary: Puff the Magic Dragon


I will get to Mary Travers, but first, let me set the scene.

In the late 1940s, there was a group of folk singers called the Almanac Singers. Members included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Their songs were overtly political, and the group was destroyed by the blacklist. Seeger then formed the Weavers. The Weavers avoided political material, and enjoyed a few hits in the early 50s, but soon they too were blacklisted, and could no longer find work. But the Weavers showed that there was a sizable audience for the ensemble folk sound. The folk revival was in full swing, and soon the airwaves were filled with pop-folk groups. The songs were apolitical, and hit followed hit.

By 1961, Greenwich Village in New York City was a center of the folk scene. Mary Travers was one of the few who actually grew up there. That year, she joined up with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow to form Peter, Paul & Mary, and they began to play local gigs. The next year saw the release of their first album, which was an immediate success.

But Peter, Paul & Mary’s timing could have been better. The next year, the Beatles arrived in the United States, and the popularity of the pop-folk sound vanished. So how is it that Peter Paul & Mary did not? There were two reasons. Ironically, Peter, Paul & Mary stayed in the public eye by performing political material. They played at civil rights demonstrations, and then at peace marches, which is where I first heard them.

The other thing that kept them in the public eye was one song: Puff the Magic Dragon. This song became, (and still is), a classic kid’s song. The lyrics about the power and the limits of childhood imagination are certainly one reason. But the sound of these three voices are a vital ingredient, and it can’t work without Mary Travers. Of course, it can’t work without Peter Yarrow or Paul Stookey either. I find it hard to separate them.

The group would last until 1970, and then go their separate ways for solo projects. They would find that the magic that happened when they were together was essential, and they would regroup in 1978. From there on, they would reaffirm their commitment to social causes. And they would record two albums especially for children and their families, including a new recording of Puff.

One last thought. If you get a chance, catch a special on PBS called Lifelines. It shows up during fund drives. Here, Peter, Paul & Mary share the stage with some of their inspirations, some of their contemporaries, and some of the musicians they inspired. Mary Travers had lost her youthful figure by this time, but I have the strong impression watching her that she is a mother figure here. To me, hers is the strongest presence among some very strong personalities. It is a quiet strength, calmly watching over the proceedings. I don’t know if that is how it was in the group for all those years. But that is how I will think of her.

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