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We Miss You Mary Travers

| November 9, 2010 | 1 Comment

From the moment Peter Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey & Mary Travers started singing together in the heady days of the Greenwich Village folk boom, they’ve forged their three separate identities into a unified force made stronger by their diversity. So intertwined has Peter, Paul & Mary’s music been with its political context that it could almost stand as a soundtrack to the turbulent times of the ’60s—from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War. With little more than their three voices and two acoustic guitars, they challenged an entire generation to answer the call to political activism.

Today marks what would have been Mary Travers’ 74th birthday. She left this earth on September 16th of last year after a battle with leukemia, and with her went a joyous laugh and a heart so big there was room for all of us to step inside. What we’re left with, though, are memories of a woman who gave her powerful voice to those who had none, and the many songs with which she accomplished that.

Below is an interview Holly Crenshaw did with Mary in 1995, along with some footage that will have you singing along. We miss you, Mary Travers, but today we celebrate your birth.

Is it hard to find good songs now?

Oh, it’s always hard to find good songs! The hardest songs to find—or to write, for that matter—are songs that deal with a specific issue. You get into big trouble when you try to address a specific issue. It’s so much easier to treat it a little amorphously, as with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I’ve sung “Blowin’ in the Wind” at almost every cause event I’ve ever done, because the song stretches that way. It’s very elastic—it’ll wrap itself around almost any issue.

Well, you don’t find those kinds of songs every day. And when you go to look for a song about a specific issue, very often you find a song whose intention is honorable, but whose craft falls short. Because when you’re dealing with protest music, there’s a very thin line between art and what becomes propaganda. One wants to avoid propaganda, and you want to make a more artistic statement.

PP&M Singing Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind

How do the three of you agree on what songs you’ll sing?

We take every song apart. We question their logic. We question their politics. We question whether or not a supposition that’s made is full of nonsense or whether it has validity. Sometimes we’ll call the author up and say, “What did you mean by blah, blah, blah?”

I remember the song “I Am Woman.” I had an advance copy of that song before it was ever recorded, and I loved the song – I thought the song was great. Except the line, “I am invincible.” I said, “Whoa, wait a moment. Being liberated is not about being invincible. I do not want to be out there with my bracelets. I do not want to be Wonder Woman.” I think being liberated is about being able to be yourself, both strong and weak, and not get clobbered for either position. So I couldn’t sing the song.

PP&M Singsing Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”

Was there a genuine collaborative spirit in the folk scene of the ’60s?

Oh, absolutely! You would be sitting in a coffee shop and Tom Paxton would come up and go, “Listen to this I just wrote,” and he’d be playing you some little tune. Or Bob Dylan or Dave Van Ronk—we were all swapping stuff. And if another group or another person sang your song, this was the highest of compliments. It meant that they were moved by what you wrote.

Yeah, there was much more, “Oh, that’s a good song I want to sing it too.” Somewhere in the late or mid ’70s, the concept of “covering” a record became a problem. I think probably with the tremendous pressure on singer-songwriter performers to produce, it started to become, “Oh, that’s so-and-so’s song,” instead of it being, “It’s a good song.”

PP&M Singing “If I had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays

How has the folk music scene changed since the ’60s?

Well, folk music never dies. It sort of lays low for a while. Folk music has never gone away. Folk music as a part of top-40 radio will come and go, come and go. It’s a root form that influences music in the popular vein. But as a genre, it’s alive and well. It may have had a dicey moment there in the ’70s and early ’80s, but picked up steam all over the place in the late ’80s and these early ’90s.

Has it changed? I think there’s a little less emphasis on the traditional, which is unfortunate. Because if I were the Commissar of Folk, I would pretty much say that every person who sings in the folk genre should include, at the very least, one or two traditional songs in every set. It’s important to preserve and carry on that music. And if you don’t do it, who will?

Do younger artists ever express indebtedness to you?

Sometimes. But certainly I don’t encourage it (laughs). I like to think we’re all in this thing together. I don’t think anybody sets out in this world to be a folksinger. It’s a hobby that takes over your soul—it’s something you catch (laughs). But I think the fundamental basis of the folk tradition, at least in America, is a very egalitarian base. And it’s not, “How many gold records do you have on the wall?” It’s “Do you love this form? Do you want to see this form persist? Do you want the world to be a better place?” That’s what it’s all about.

Mary singing Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” with Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliott Looking On

—By Holly Crenshaw

From Performing Songwriter Issue 13, July/August 1995

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (1)

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  1. bobf says:

    There’s a video of a public domain biographical folk song about Mary from the 1980s, “Woman of Experience,” that was posted at following protestfolk channel link, that might interest Performing Songwriter readers who miss Mary’s voice and spirit:

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