Mary Travers, who with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow helped popularise folk music in the 1960s as Peter, Paul and Mary, has died aged 72. Peter, Paul and Mary were the most popular folk group of the 1960s and their music had a profound effect on my musical appreciation and political development at that time. Along with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, they provided a doorway to a rich musical tradition. They could trace their roots and inspiration back to music and events from the late ’40s, and the founding of the Weavers. Though they broke up in 1952, the Weavers planted two seeds in American popular culture: one was the folk song revival of the late fifties and the other, a byproduct of their blacklisting, was the emergence of a politically focused branch of folk music.
Travers was born in Kentucky but attended high school in New York’s West Village, where her family lived in the same building as Pete Seeger. She became a disciple of the Weavers and performed with Seeger before Yarrow and his manager Albert Grossman (who later steered Bob Dylan’s career) recruited her for the trio. After seven months of rehearsals, the group made its debut in 1961 performing songs carefully arranged by Milk Okun.
I played their first two LPs till the vinyl smoked, alongside The Times They Are A Changin’ and Joan Baez 1 and 2. Their debut contained ‘Early In The Morning’ (featured recently on Mad Men), ‘500 Miles’, ‘If I Had a Hammer’,’Lemon Tree’ and Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’. The follow-up, In The Wind, included three Dylan tracks (‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, in a version I have always loved, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘Quit Your Lowdown Ways’) as well as ‘Long Chain On’, ‘Rocky Road’ and ‘All My Trials’.
Peter Paul and Mary sometimes get a bad press, but I never saw any contradiction between listening to the Beatles and the Stones, or the latest top twenty on Radio Luxembourg, and being inspired by the stars of the sixties folk revival. What their songs provided was something different – rich imagery, social comment and the politics of resistance. I remember the electric impact of PPM singing Jimmie Driftwood’s ‘Long Chain On’:
One night as I lay on my pillow,
moonlight as bright as the dawn
I saw a man come a walking,
he had a long chain on.
I heard his chains a clankin’,
they made a mournful sound,
Welded around his body,
draggin’ along the ground.
He stood beside my window,
he looked at me and he said
“I am so tired and hungry.
Give me a bite of your bread”
He didn’t look like a robber,
he didn’t look like a thief
His voice was as soft as the moonlight,
a face full of sorrow and grief.
I went into my kitchen,
fetched him a bowl full of meat
A drink and a pan of cold biscuits,
that’s what I gave him to eat
Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
he said a beautiful grace.
I got my hammer and chisel,
offered to set him free
He looked at me and said softly,
“I guess we had best let it be.”
When he had finished his supper,
he thanked me again and again.
Though it’s been years since I’ve seen him,
still hear him draggin’ his chain.
You didn’t have to take on board the underlying religious import of these lyrics (I had grown up in a household where my mum was a fervent believer and my dad a fierce atheist, and by then I had followed him in rejecting organised religion) to feel the strange power of the imagery; the sense that eradicating hunger and injustice required more than one blow of a hammer and chisel: it needed a movement.
At 15 years old, hearing Peter Paul and Mary perform ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at the March on Washington in 1963 was transcendent. The trio reflected the moment in history, politics, and art with Dylan’s song. Civil rights activism was at its height, and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ embodied the spirit of the time.
The song established Bob Dylan as the conscience of my generation, and PP&M as the voice of that conscience, culminating with their performance at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech. Their recording of the song had been released as a single just two months earlier, in June 1963, and was an instant hit, selling over 300,000 copies in less than two weeks and eventually rising to number two on the U.S. charts.
Mary and the rest of the trio remained politically active, as can be seen in the 1971 YouTube video below. She was outspoken in her support for the civil-rights and antiwar movements, in sharp contrast to clean-cut folk groups like the Kingston Trio, which avoided making political statements. They had always combined their music with radical causes, both onstage and off. Their version of “If I Had a Hammer” became an anthem for racial equality. They were vehement in their opposition to the Vietnam War and in more rcent times performed at the 1995 anniversary of the Kent State shootings and at benefits for California strawberry pickers.
In a 1966 New York Times interview, Travers said the three worked well together because they respected one another. “There has to be a certain amount of love just in order for you to survive together,” she said. “I think a lot of groups have gone down the tubes because they were not able to relate to one another.”