Our Earth is one big, blue marble, and if we all tended to those around us, think of the Eden we could dwell in every day. This was the powerful message of Peter, Paul, and Mary, one of the most famous musical groups of all time. Mary Travers, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1936, did not set out to become a singer who inspired millions. Her vocal artistry came to her naturally, and her care for others was always a foundation of her being.
"Well, I started singing when I was fourteen in Washington Square Park," explained Mary, sitting comfortably in her kitchen in her Connecticut home, watching and admiring the cardinals that danced outside her windows. Washington Square Park is in Greenwich Village, a vibrant artists´ community where Mary lived during her teen years. "Then I made albums with Pete. I just sort of backed into it. When I woke up, I was a singer."
She chose her songs with care: selecting those that carried a message she felt was important to share with others. "I love songs that are poetic, that have social meaning." Every one of her songs brings back fond memories for Mary. "I do not have a favorite - they are pretty much like my kids. The one that behaves the best at the moment is my favorite." Mary´s voice and message rings clear in the Hammer Song, where she joyfully announces, "I´d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land."
Peter, Paul and Mary´s message of caring for others and taking a stand for the oppressed reverberates across cultures and ages. "Our band takes folk music from a regional kind of mentality to a national kind of mentality. Along with the Kingston Trio and The Limeliters, we created an intergenerational music. With our music, parents would not say to their kids, ´Turn that record off´."
In 1962, the group sang, "Where have all the young men gone? Gone to soldiers, every one. When will they ever learn?" Based on a Ukrainian tune written in the 1930s, the song became an anthem for the Vietnam War protesters. The lyrics are just as potent in today´s environment of the war in Iraq.
Every song Peter, Paul and Mary choose to sing demonstrates this same timeless staying power. Mary feels very strongly about her song selections and the message she works to promote. "The songs we´ve picked have power and reference that have meaning for each generation."
That is not to say their music is without controversy. In 1958, Peter Yarrow wrote the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" based on a poem a college-student friend had shared with him. The poem reflected a longing for the quiet times of childhood. The poem´s innocence was about to be tested by a false story. Mary chuckles as she thinks back. "That started in 1967 when Newsweek ran an article by a psychiatrist on drug references in pop music. The author wrote about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds [by the Beatles, purportedly about the psychedelic drug LSD]. She mentioned Puff. Puff was never
about drugs. The writers mentioned our music to make it more exotic." Ironically, music about holding on to childhood wonder and caring for each other was exactly the kind of music the psychiatrist should have been promoting, rather than denigrating.
Even with their problems with Puff, Mary is very supportive of listeners interpreting and personalizing her music. "It is in a lot of art. It is up to the viewer to find a meaning and personal connection," she says. She encourages every person to think critically, to develop individual thoughts and feelings based on songs and paintings.
Mary has been through numerous challenges in her life. She has recently overcome a bout with leukemia, and is now on oxygen. Even so, now 72 years young, she shows no sign of stopping. "You have to pace yourself. I do not have the energy that I used to have. Part of that is illness. You should always do things that give you pleasure. It takes a little more time to do it - that´s the name of the game. If you´re a painter, you take more time to create your image. If you´re writing a poem, maybe you write fewer words. You can create a wonderful work by taking your time."
Mary keeps an upbeat attitude about her aging. During a recent concert in Worcester, Massachusetts she joked about her oxygen tubes being "plastic jewelry". She laughed that while her short hair style is easy to maintain, she did miss "flipping" her long, blond locks up over her shoulder as she used to do as a teenager. Her flamboyant demonstration of her head toss brought a roar of laughter from the appreciative audience.
Mary keeps her eyes to the future, to new horizons she can explore. "I´d like to write a book. Sometimes I think fiction, sometimes an autobiography." Mary explains that both of her parents were well known newspaper reporters, that she comes from a family of authors. Mary´s mother marched and protested alongside her, and the family strove through their words and songs to help bring people together.
"I have great respect for the written word. When someone´s written a book, they have rewritten it, grinded, polished, thrown stuff out. They present you with the very best they can do."
At the Worcester show there were young children dancing in the aisles as their grandparents sang along with the music, young eyes sparkling, elderly faces wreathed in smiles. The songs - "Where have all the flowers gone," "The Garden Song," "Don´t Laugh at Me," and yes, "Puff the Magic Dragon," were just as powerful today as they were when they were first performed. Mary´s enthusiasm and care for her audience was visible in every warm laugh, every friendly comment. The walls of the theater rang as the packed audience sang along, word for word, with their much loved melodies.
I asked Mary for any final thoughts. "The most important thing for artists to focus on is to think about peace, about breaking down the walls between them. Volunteerism is something all artists should do. If you paint, go to an inner city school and teach them how to paint. If you write poetry, go to a senior center and read to them."
"Be kind to your neighbor."