Mary Travers, who died of complications from leukemia on September 16th at age 72, was best known as the visual focal point of folk icons Peter, Paul and Mary. With her fervent stage moves and long, straight blond hair, which she often shook to mesmerizing effect, Travers brought both powerful lungs and sex appeal to folk music.
Travers, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, received a bone marrow transplant in 2006. But her condition worsened, and by earlier this year, she had stopped performing. A resident of Redding, Connecticut, Travers died at Danbury Hospital and is survived her husband, Ethan Robbins, and daughters Alicia and Erika.
Starting with their version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” in 1962 and continuing with hits like “Puff the Magic Dragon” (1963) and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (1969), PPM were the face of folk-pop throughout the decade. Yet the trio used their caressing harmonies to subvert from within. They placed two Bob Dylan covers (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) in the top 10 in 1963. Paul Stookey’s and Peter Yarrow’s goatees, as well as a repertoire that included songs by Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotton, Tom Paxton, and the Rev. Gary Davis, brought the liberal Greenwich Village folk sound and look into the mainstream.
They carried on the folk-political continuum begun decades earlier with the Weavers — most notably in 1963, when PPM sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the Lincoln Memorial during the same March on Washington at which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. “This was the first time I’d ever seen that many people, and they were all hoping for social change and for something good,” Travers later recalled. “It was probably the most pivot al moment of my life.”
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As Stookey recalls, Travers was a major part of the group’s stance. “As an activist, she was brave, outspoken and inspiring, especially in her defense of the defenseless,” he says. “Once I was attempting to defend Ronald Reagan’s educational policy. She interrupted me with, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, do your homework!,’ turned on her heel and walked away. Need I say it turned out she was right?”
Travers was socially aware from the start. Born November 9, 1936 in Louisville, Kentucky, the child of two journalists, Travers eventually moved with her family first to Albany, New York, and then to Greenwich Village. There, Travers attended a progressive school and met legends like Seeger and Paul Robeson, heard Josh White at children’s folk concerts, and during high school became a member of the Song Swappers folk group, who backed Seeger on record in the mid ’50s.
In 1961, manager Albert Grossman suggested to another local solo act, Peter Yarrow, that he should consider forming a folk group, pointing to a photo of Travers on the wall of New York’s famed Folklore Center folk club. Travers was reluctant; by then, she’d already given birth to a child and had little interest in a singing career. “To me, folk music was more like a social thing you did,” she said. “It was not something I wanted to do for a living.”
Still, Yarrow and Travers met, sang a few songs together, and truly found their sound when they added another local folksinger (and comic), Noel Stookey. Grossman suggested they rename themselves Peter, Paul and Mary, after a line in the folk song “I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago,” and Stookey agreed to change his stage name. They began performing at Village clubs like the Bitter End and Folk City, and Joe Smith, who signed them to Warner Brothers Records, remembers “the visual impact of this gorgeous blond woman and with these two bearded guys.”
Early on, Grossman suggested Travers not say anything onstage order to enhance her mystique and allure, although Travers often said it was due to her own nerves. “As a performer, her charisma was a barely contained nervous energy — occasionally (and then only privately) revealed as stage fright,” says Stookey. Yarrow calls her “honest and completely authentic.”
The trio’s self-titled debut album — named the 19th best album of the ’60s by Rolling Stone — was released in 1962 and became an instant hit thanks to “If I Had a Hammer” and another single, “Lemon Tree.” Along with folk tunes, Peter, Paul and Mary were among the first to cover songs by up-and-coming writers like Laura Nyro and Gordon Lightfoot and they released one of the first covers from Dylan’s Basement Tapes (their version of “Too Much of Nothing” appeared in 1967). Their own songs, like “The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life)” or Stookey and Yarrow’s adaptation of the folk song “The Cruel War,” were also infused with social commentary, and they wrote and recorded a campaign theme song for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. For their efforts, they were rewarded with a letter of praise from John Kennedy and a stench bomb set off at a show in Oklahoma.
Peter, Paul and Mary disbanded in 1970, after which the trio recorded solo albums. Travers’ first, Mary (1971), had a modest pop hit in a cover of John Denver’s “Follow Me,” and her 1972 album Morning Glory featured “Conscientious Objector (I Shall Die),” based on the writing of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The trio reunited in the late ’70s and picked up where they left off, recording, touring and singing at political rallies for the homeless and against apartheid.
“I have no idea what it will be like to have no Mary in my world, in my life, or onstage to sing with,” says Yarrow. “But I do know there will always be a hole in my heart, a place where she will always exist that will never be filled by any other person.”