Friday, September 18, 2009

Mary Travers: 1936 - 2009


Mary Travers is dead. You may have heard of her old singing group Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the fab folk trio of the 1960’s – popularizing Bob Dylan through their hit cover of Blowin’ in the Wind and garnering a string of chart toppers like If I Had a Hammer, Puff the Magic Dragon and Leavin’ On a Jet Plane. They were cool. They were real. They sang songs. “But Vince, doesn’t every band sing songs?” Well, not really. It is true, most bands “sing” – sort of. And what these bands sing could usually be categorized as “songs” per se – but they sure ain’t SONGS! Peter, Paul and Mary represent a way-out bygone era of music and singing – in their time, a particular song didn’t wholly belong to the songwriter or original singer – rather, songs were communal property, artistic “masks” that could be traded and worn and imbued with the individual traits of the performer. Sure, Elvis songs were Elvis songs and The Beatles sounded like no other but even those artists were not niches in of themselves. Today, virtually every singer or band exists as their own genre – and it is usually impossible to imagine anyone but themselves performing their original songs. Instead, their compositions work as personal journal entries – speaking only for themselves and only to those who want to be them. Peter, Paul and Mary sang of something bigger. Their songs were ramblers and travelers and when you listen to them sing you’re only really seeing a quick snapshot of that particular song in motion – for moments later it would be wearing new colors and walking a different tune in the valley of another throat.

I got to see Peter, Paul and Mary in 1997 at the Puyallup Fair. I was in High School and it was one of my major formative experiences – I’d been listening to these cats for about a year but I had been singing them since I was a child. Puff the Magic Dragon was a mainstay in my Primary education and about once a month my class had “Music Day” – Mr. MackenzieSullivan would come over from the High School and lead us in an hour of outta sight folk singing – with Puff being my personal favorite. Much later, when I was 16, my Mom gifted me a copy of P,P&M’s 1962 self-titled debut album and my life was changed. I became obsessed with the 1960’s folk revival and this obsession culminated with their Puyallup Fair performance. I remember Mary not looking so good – she was Cass Elliot-size and had to be escorted onstage with the assistance of a few stage hands and two walking canes. But Jesus Fuck, could she still sing! Peter Yarrow and Noel “Paul” Stookey were in top form but, as always, Mary Travers was the glue. She was the signpost and the landmark that these travel weary songs required to find their bearings. And though that particular road may now be closed, the songs walk on – discovering new highways, new valleys and new throats to travel. Still, I’m going to miss that old road. It’ll never happen that way again. Mary Travers is dead.



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