Thursday, September 17, 2009

Goodbye, Mary

Part of my youth died yesterday with news that Mary Travers, the lanky, sonorous blonde of Peter, Paul and Mary passed away from complications of leukemia.

Peter Paul and Mary generally did not sing their own songs. They gave voice—beautifully blended and harmonized voice—to the music and words of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other legends of the folk music world. No one, not even the original artists, could match the trio’s signature sound and interpretations. With eye-level bangs and straight long blonde hair set against a stark black turtleneck, Mary Travers’ electric voice transported the music to another strata.

By the time I got into PPM around 1965 at a concert at Brooklyn College, they already were recognized as the group that transcended folk music and elevated it to protest art. “Blowing in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”—these anthems and more of peace, equality, justice and love lifted the spirits of all who heard them. An anti-war rally or a civil rights march in the 1960s was not an “event” without a PPM appearance.

Every summer PPM would play one night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I’d arrange my days off from summer camp counseling to go to the concerts. Twice we scored front-row center seats. Once my friends and I made eye contact with their bass player, Dick Kniss, and actually made him miss a beat during a song. Another time, using my college newspaper press pass, we went backstage after the concert.

Most of my generation of the 1960s matriculated to hard rock. I didn’t. I preferred the lyrics of protest and compassion sung by PPM.

For more than 30 years my job required me to leave my family and board an airplane several times a month. I rarely did so without singing to myself Mary’s haunting version of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I don’t travel as much anymore. Just as well. Mary’s not here anymore to send me off.