Mary Travers: Singer whose work with Peter, Paul and Mary added a political edge to the pop music of the early 1960s
Saturday 19 September 2009
Mary Travers was the willowy, blonde singer of the Sixties folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary. Their popularity was in keeping with John F. Kennedy's presidency and their songs, covering both political and social concerns, brought integrity to the popular music of the day.
Similarly, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "For Lovin' Me" showed candour and honesty in discussing personal relationships. Their smooth middle-of-the-road approach has not aged well but this is not to belittle their achievement of introducing the songs of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Laura Nyro to mainstream audiences.
Travers was born in Louisville, Kentucky in November 1936. Her parents were journalists, but in 1939 the family moved to New York City as her father wanted to enlist in the Merchant Marines. He sensed that a war was coming and became a ship's captain.
At school, Travers was in a choir directed by Bob DeCormier. Travers became part of his studio group, the Song Swappers, who accompanied folk singers as needed. They are featured on Pete Seeger's album, Talking Union And Other Union Songs (1955), and appeared twice at Carnegie Hall. Although her main interest was in horses, she enjoyed folk music and would attend hootenannies at Washington Park Square.
Travers worked in an advertising agency but when an early marriage did not work out, she returned to her family home in Greenwich Village. In 1958 she had a small role in a short-lived Broadway musical, The Next President, starring Mort Sahl.
The agitprop folk group the Weavers had found international success in the early Fifties, and a latter-day equivalent was the bland but talented Kingston Trio. Albert Grossman, a co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival, wanted an act with more bite and at first he considered the gruff-voiced folk singer, Dave Van Ronk. "Albert wasn't interested in established or recognised artists," Travers reflected. "His approach was to find a nobody he could nurture and then they'd be forever indebted to him, or so he thought."
The light-voiced Peter Yarrow was an academic with a degree in psychology. He studied folk music with the same discipline and he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960. He occasionally sang with Travers, and Grossman suggested a combination of Van Ronk, Yarrow and Travers. Musically it was unlikely to work, but more to the point, Van Ronk's wife did not relish her husband working with another tall, good-looking woman, and the plans were revised.
Noel Stookey had played rock'n'roll and jazz, and with his witty stage presence became compere at the Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village. Travers lived across the street and occasionally joined him on stage. When Yarrow, Stookey and Travers got together in spring 1961 they worked out harmonies for "Mary Had A Little Lamb". Grossman realised their potential and renamed them Peter, Paul and Mary. They joined the Everly Brothers and comedian Bob Newhart on the new Warner Brothers label. With producer Milt Okun they developed distinctive harmonies with the stereo effect of Paul on the left, Peter on the right and Mary in the centre.
Peter, Paul and Mary had chart success in the US with the plaintive ballad, "Lemon Tree", and then the stirring plea for world peace and racial freedom, "If I Had A Hammer" from the Weavers' repertoire. A children's song written by Yarrow, "Puff The Magic Dragon", reached No 2. Their first album, Peter, Paul And Mary, issued in 1962, topped the US album charts, selling two million copies. It was followed by the equally successful Moving the next year.
Peter, Paul and Mary were soon playing Carnegie Hall and headlining at the major festivals. Travers was seen as one of folk music's long-haired beauties like Joan Baez and Carolyn Hester. At the Newport Folk Festival, it fell to her to introduce Bob Dylan whom she described as "one of us".
Peter, Paul and Mary's third album, In The Wind (1964), had a liner note by Dylan (which ignored everything about Mary except her hair), and contained his song of disillusionment "Blowin' In The Wind". Their clear enunciation and harmonies made the so-called protest song radio-friendly and it was heard in quarters which would not tolerate Dylan's own edgy vocals. The nine-question song became an international hit and an anthem for the civil rights movement. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded several other Dylan compositions including "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'".
Dylan was also managed by Grossman but Peter, Paul and Mary were not just playing lip service to the new talent. They admired his songs and applauded his sentiments. In 1963 they took part in the 500,000-strong march on Washington organised by Dr. Martin Luther King, and two years later, in dangerous circumstances, they campaigned for racial equality in Selma, Alabama.
They performed 200 concerts a year, often for charitable or political causes. In Concert (1964) shows the beauty of their unadorned sound – just their voices, Peter and Paul's guitars and a double bass played by Dick Kniss. Both Yarrow and Stookey spoke well on stage, but Travers only made passing comments. Their many traditional songs included "Stewball", "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and Travers' tour de force, "Single Girl"; the arrangements are more subtle than some would credit.
By 1965 Dylan had moved from folk to rock and was writing cryptic but personal songs, causing Travers to remark to Music Echo, "We started singing songs of Bobby's because they meant something. We don't sing them anymore because he no longer writes anything that means anything to us." In his place, the trio promoted the work of the Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, introducing the world to "For Lovin' Me" and "Early Morning Rain".
They also recorded many children's songs including the album, Peter, Paul And Mommy (1969). However, they were caught unwittingly in a backlash against the counterculture and songs that mentioned drug use – the records most often cited were "Eight Miles High", "Mr. Tambourine Man" – and "Puff The Magic Dragon".
By 1967 the trio was heading down the same road as Dylan and recorded "I Dig Rock And Roll Music", which sounded more like the Mamas and the Papas. Their Album 1700 was a successful transition to electric music. However, Travers and Yarrow regarded Late Again (1968) as a step too far as Stookey was revelling in a Beatles-influenced sound and was writing intensely personal songs such as "Hymn". He had become a born-again Christian and ould talk about his conversion during concert appearances, much to the chagrin of the others. As the group was disbanding in 1970, a track from Album 1700, John Denver's "Leavin' On A Jet Plane" became their biggest success. Their final recording was "Because All Men Are Brothers" which beautifully combined Travers' voice with Dave Brubeck's piano.
Travers had a solo career, hosting TV shows and making the albums Mary, with John Denver's assistance (1971), Morning Glory (1972), All My Choices (1973), Circles (1974) and It's In Everyone Of Us (1975). One of Bob Dylan's few media interviews was discussing his Blood On The Tracks album with Travers in 1975. She sang with symphony orchestras and lectured on "Society And Its Effect On Music" on university campuses, but she lacked the ambition to become a major solo star. She married the photographer and motorcycle enthusiast, Barry Feinstein, who directed the hippie film, You Are What You Eat (1968).
In 1978 Yarrow reformed the trio for an anti-nuclear rally at the Hollywood Bowl. The album, Reunion, showed that their harmonies were still intact and they continued to work together. Among the love songs was more radical material such as "El Salvador" (1986): "We're killing people just to set them free / Who put this price on liberty?"
At Live Aid in 1985, the intention was to feature Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' In The Wind" with Peter, Paul and Mary, but Dylan backed out and performed with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. They were unhappy at being slighted but they joined Dylan and Stevie Wonder for a civil rights concert the following year.
In 1988 a photograph of the group's arrest on an anti-apartheid demonstration was shown on their album cover, No Easy Walk To Freedom. "You have to walk a thin line between art and propaganda," Travers said. "A piece of art doesn't lead the revolution. It articulates the issue and starts the dialogue."
In 1995, they released (Lifelines) with guest artists Emmylou Harris, Dave Van Ronk and Carly Simon. Their most recent album, In These Times (2004) found them still concerned with contemporary problems including school bullying ("Don't Laugh At Me"). Said Travers, "Once you accept that struggle is a part of life, then you can find happiness in and around the struggle."
Mary Allin Travers, singer: born Louisville, Kentucky 9 November 1936; married twice (divorced twice, two daughters); died 16 September 2009.
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