by Ed Tant
Turn off for awhile those discordant notes of rancor and repression
that sour the symphony of American life today. Hearken instead to the
dulcet voice of Mary Travers, who sang songs of love and peace with
the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. She died Sept. 16 at the age of 72,
leaving behind decades of musical memories for her fans around the world.
Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey looked the part of an
early-'60s Greenwich Village folk trio straight out of the beatnik
era. Peter and Paul sported dark suits and neatly trimmed beards.
Mary favored dark-hued dresses and wore her hair long and straight.
Each of the three was an accomplished musician, but when they came
together in concert, the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts.
With such songs as "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers
Gone?" and Bob Dylan's pioneering dissident anthem "Blowin' in the
Wind," Peter, Paul and Mary had a string of socially conscious
recording hits at a time when much of America's music was teen idol
love songs or Beach Boys ballads of surfing and cars.
In the early 1960s, when Peter, Paul and Mary began their climb up
the record charts, a young president named John F. Kennedy was in the
White House and a civil rights firebrand named Martin Luther King Jr.
was tweaking the conscience of this nation. Beatnik poets like Allen
Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were breaking new ground in verse
while Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac took his readers "On the
Road" across America's emerging counterculture.
Bohemian meccas like New York and San Francisco were fertile ground
for such iconoclastic comedians as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, who
skewered the sham and hypocrisy of American whitebread culture. On
television, beatniks were lampooned with comedy caricatures like
Maynard G. Krebs, Bob Denver's character on the TV show "The Many
Loves of Dobie Gillis."
Into this smoky, black and white, pre-Beatles world stepped Peter,
Paul and Mary. As The New York Times said in its recent obituary for
Mary Travers, the trio's "mildly bohemian look ... gave mainstream
audiences their first glimpse of a subculture that had previously
While Madison Avenue and Mad Magazine often set the tone for America
in the "Kennedy Camelot" years, it was folk singers like Pete Seeger,
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez who used music to shine a spotlight on
festering national problems like racial injustice and militaristic
madness. Peter, Paul and Mary meshed perfectly with their times, and
their tunes helped to change this nation.
In the sizzling summer of 1963, tens of thousands of civil rights
demonstrators packed the nation's capital to hear King give his
soaring "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial. Also onstage that day were Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter,
Paul and Mary. Dylan sang "Only a Pawn in Their Game," Baez warbled
the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," and Peter, Paul and Mary
brought cheers from the multitude on the Mall with their rendition of
Dylan's classic tune "Blowin' in the Wind."
The trio's versions of Dylan's songs helped make the songs of the
nasal-voiced young singer from Minnesota more accessible to audiences
unaccustomed to Dylan's raw style.
With later hits such as "Puff the Magic Dragon,""Leaving on a Jet
Plane" and the whimsical "I Dig Rock and Roll Music," Peter, Paul and
Mary used their sweet but powerful harmonies to capture new
generations of listeners.
When Mary Travers died, a piece of an era passed as well. "Where Have
All the Flowers Gone?" One left us on Sept. 16. Her name was Mary Travers.