Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary passed away from leukemia yesterday at the age of 72 and I teared up several times last night and this morning just thinking about her.
When I was 14 years old, my Girl Scout leader, who also happened to be the editor of our dinky local newspaper, asked if I wanted to become an intern. One of the very first stories she asked me to write was covering a talk at our town’s university by the folk singer and activist Mary Travers. I knew vaguely about Travers’ folk trio—everyone sang “Puff The Magic Dragon” in kindergarten, right?—but I was well past the age of listening to Peter, Paul and Mary. They just sang kids’ music, right? I thought she was like Raffi.
But when Mary Travers spoke and performed that night at Fairfield University—wow! Travers wasn’t a kids’ music singer; she was one of the icons of America of the 1960s. Her music and her activism literally helped change the way we are in America today. Travers was an ally in the Civil Rights Movement, was arrested for protesting apartheid in South Africa, and sang songs about social justice, like “Blowin’ In The Wind,” whose lyrics, I’m sorry to see, are timeless. Here was a woman who was intellectual, creative, passionate, and compassionate who bravely stood up for what she thought was right regardless of its personal consequences to her — and yet still seemed like a happy person!
It truly was a life-changing experience for me, one of the first times I had a template for what kind of person I truly admired. Mary Travers was the first adult woman I looked to and thought, “I want to be you when I grow up.”Mary Travers was born in Louisville, KY, but was lucky enough to spend much of her childhood and teen years in New York City during the beatnik and folk music periods. She lived in Greenwich Village, performing folk music locally, influencing and being influenced by other seminal artists of that time.
In the 1960s, she, Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow began performing as the Peter, Paul and Mary folk music trio. The group never shied away from addressing social justice issues like the tumult of the Vietnam War and the fact that our country was still segregated in songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “If I Had A Hammer.” (Some of these songs were originals, while others were covers of songs by other artists, like Bob Dylan.) The trio even performed at the 1963 March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ever watch “Mad Men” and think, God, things were pretty f**ked-up back then for women and black folks? Mary Travers and her band mates actually believed a better world existed and fought those inequalities through their work.
Travers’ activism on behalf of human rights worldwide has always been more of interest to me, more so than her music. She used her fame to draw attention to the plight of disadvantaged people around the world, whether it was segregated blacks in South Africa, persecuted Russian Jews in the then-Soviet Union, or the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador whose governments were meddled with by our own. It’s in Mary Travers’ footsteps which activist-actresses like Angelina Jolie and Ashley Judd now walk. What a supremely cool life Travers led!
Travers passed away last night from a battle with leukemia which left behind her beloved family and band mates, as well as a body of music, writing, and activism which truly deserve the moniker “inspiration.” Travers and Peter Paul and Mary’s folk music may never have been “cool,” like The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but they’re just as deserving of a place in social justice music history. —[Peter, Paul and Mary’s website]
Rest in peace, Mary Travers, for you are truly irreplaceable. And if you have never been lucky enough to hear her perform live, as I have, watch this clip of Peter, Paul and Mary performing on the BBC from many years ago.