Monday, September 21, 2009

Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Mary Travers 1936 - 2009

Its was last Wednesday that the world lost a truly great entertainer. Some of you will know just what I am saying and some may see this and go who? My first memories of music were formed at the sound of this woman's voice. Mary Travers was one of three that made up the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary. PPM first emerged in 1962 with their self titled album scored a Grammy and by 1963 they had three albums in the top 6 on billboard's charts. My parents played PPM relentlessly on their Sony 4 track reel to reel through most of the 60's and into the 70's and it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that my siblings and I know every word and verse by heart to this day. It was the third or fourth CD I ever purchased when that medium came out... and I remember taking it home to play for my father as we marveled at the sound. Looking back the words had a lasting impression on me and formed some of the basis of who I am today.

With her stature, long, flowing blonde hair and signature bangs, and her arresting and passionate vocal delivery, Mary Travers became an irresistible force in Peter, Paul and Mary’s performances. These performances helped bring the folk scene to the broad American public, ushering in the Folk Renaissance of the 1960s.

The trio first performed in Greenwich Village’s “The Bitter End” coffee house, but soon grew from a village phenomenon to become the dominant force on radio's music programming as the subject matter of songs changed from relatively benign pop lyrics to messages of content and conscience that stirred the nation as it came to embrace the Civil Rights Movement and, later, the Anti-War Movement of the late sixties and early seventies.

Along with Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, Mary, beyond the music that she recorded and sang, became a spokesperson for the movements that were to change the direction of America for decades to come. Championing the rights of the disenfranchised and the legitimacy of those who advocated for greater fairness at home, Mary, along with her partners in the trio, advocated for dedication to principle, rather than simple dominance, in America’s policies abroad.

Peter, Paul & Mary’s self-titled debut album, released in 1962, rose rapidly to the top of the “charts,” and remained in the Top Ten for ten months, and the Top 20 for two years. Their first hit single, “Lemon Tree” was swiftly followed by "If I Had a Hammer" which became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement” and was performed by the trio at the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Peter, Paul And Mary touched the lives and hearts of tens of millions of people with their songs -- a message they lived in their personal and public lives as much as they sang it in concerts and memorialized it on records. With the exception of one multi-year break in their touring, the trio traveled throughout America, Europe, Asia and Australia, spreading the message they inherited, and carried forward, from Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie and innumerable, nameless, creators of the folk legacy.

They sang together over a span of almost 50 years during their career. They won five Grammy's, produced 13 Top 40 hits, of which 6 ascended into the Top 10 - as well as eight gold and five platinum albums, including songs such as "Blowing' In The Wind," "If I Had A Hammer," "Leaving On A Jet Plane," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "500 Miles" and, of course, "Puff, The Magic Dragon."

When you know some one intimately over 50 years, you are in the unique position to speak about their life,Paul Stookey wrote:"As a partner...she could be vexing and vulnerable in the same breath. as a friend she shared her concerns freely and without reservation. As an activist, she was brave, outspoken and inspiring - especially in her defense of the defenseless. And, as a performer, her charisma was a barely contained nervous energy - occasionally (and then only privately) revealed as stage fright.

Sometimes frustratingly dismissive, I seldom heard her say she was sorry, yet she often displayed an immense generosity that would surprise even herself. witty, politically savvy, she was the master/mistress of the cutting exit line. Once I was attempting to defend Ronald Reagan's educational policy. she interrupted me with "oh, for heaven's sake, do your homework!", turned on her heel and walked away. Need I say it turned out she was right?

As the relationships in the trio continued to shift and grow, Mary's insights and evolving comfort onstage drew her into the role of societal commentator and satirist; her genius revealed especially poking fun at the tumbling chaotic communications technology expanding around us.

Her illness softened her outlook considerably. Her work, her life and friends became more and more precious, and friends, especially women friends, closed ranks in the later years, returning in kindnesses so much of that which Mary, their powerful feminine matriarch, had given them.

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."

Peter Yarrow wrote: "In her final months, Mary handled her declining health in the bravest, most generous way imaginable. She never complained. She avoided expressing her emotional and physical distress, trying not to burden those of us who loved her, especially her wonderfully caring and attentive husband, Ethan. Mary hid whatever pain or fear she might have felt from everyone, clearly so as not to be a burden. Her love for me and Noel Paul, and for Ethan, poured out with great dignity and without restraint. It was, as Mary always was, honest and completely authentic. That's the way she sang, too; honestly and with complete authenticity. I believe that, in the most profound of ways, Mary was incapable of lying, as a person, and as an artist. That took great courage, and Mary was always equal to the task.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of my relationship with Mary Travers over the last, almost, 50 years, is how open and honest we were with each other, and I include Noel Paul Stookey in this equation. Such honesty comes with a price, but when you get past the hurt and shock of realizing that you're faulted and frequently wrong, you also realize that you are really loved and respected for who you are, and you become a better person. The trio's growth, our creativity, our ability to emerge over the years completely accepting of one another, warts and all, was a miracle. This gift existed, I believe, because of the music itself, which elicited from each of us the best of who we were. When we performed together, we gave our best to each other and to the audiences who came to hear us.

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.”

Later years brought about many advocacies shared by the trio. They joined and performed at national marches for women's choice in the nation's capital, demonstrated in support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement committing an act of civil disobedience that led to the trio's arrest in front of the South African Embassy, including Mary, Mary's mother and daughter. They mounted a campaign to alert New Yorkers to the reality of homelessness as more a phenomenon involving women and children in dire straights than the conventional view of the homeless as irresponsible drunks and vagrants. And, they reprised their support of Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, making an appearance to support the migrant strawberry workers in California.

Many other efforts thread their way through the lives and performances of the trio, and continued virtually until their last concert performed in New Brunswick N.J on May 20, 2009. It was here where Mary received numerous standing ovations that recognized her life and work, her courage and her determination in facing the lingering effects of chemotherapy--a treatment that allowed her to conquer Leukemia through a bone marrow/stem cell transplant. At this final performance, Mary and her two friends of almost 50 years were by her side, supporting and protecting Mary with great love, pride and compassion, sang the iconic songs that always ended their concerts, "Blowing In The Wind" and "If I Had A Hammer" followed by their encore, "This Land is Your Land". This was a testament to their relentless optimism about, and love for, America, and the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice it represents.

In her own words: “We’ve learned that it will take more than one generation to bring about change," Mary once said. “The fight for civil rights has developed into a broader concern for human rights, and that encompasses a great many people and countries. Those of us who live in a democracy have a responsibility to be the voice for those whose voices are stilled."

Note: All images by various photographers of the day. Text largely provided by news feeds and Marys own site. I ask in advance for forgiveness in using this material.

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