Thank you, Mary

posted September 21, 2009

It’s hard to overestimate how important Mary Travers was to our family. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father listened to an LP by Peter, Paul and Mary entitled simply Album. On it was a short song by the unknown songwriter John Denver called “For Baby For Bobby.”

I’ll walk in the rain by your side,
I’ll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand,
I’ll do anything to help you understand
I’ll love you more than anybody can.

And the wind will whisper your name to me
little birds will sing along in time,
leaves will bow down when you walk by
and morning bells will chime.

I’ll be there when you’re feelin down
to kiss away the tears that you cry,
I’ll share whith you all the happiness I’ve found
a reflection of the love in your eyes.

When Katryna and I were two, three, four-ish, our favorite LP was Peter, Paul and Mommy. I stared and stared at the picture of the three little kids on the front and the weird black and white overhead shot on the back that shows the band recording with an audience of children, wires connecting the various mics. I especially loved Mary’s version of “I’m Being Swallowed By a Boa Constrictor.”

At seventeen, I attended my first PP&M concert, again with our whole family. We sat on the lawn at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, a gorgeous outdoor shed. They were full of vim and vigor, having recently reunited. They sang a new song by Tom Paxton: “I Am Changing My Name To Chrysler.” Paul sang a new original called “Right Field.” They encored with “Blowing in the Wind,” and Mary said, over the last big chords, “And the answer is STILL peace, love…and the Democratic Party!” OK, maybe not exactly that, but something to that effect. After all, it was the summer of 1984 and we Democrats were desperate.

I went home and pillaged my father’s LP collection (this was before CDs, you young ‘uns!) and discovered “For Baby For Bobby.” Upon hearing it, I promptly burst into tears. When I mentioned this to my parents, they looked at each other in amazement and said, “That’s exactly what you did when you were three, and again when you were six. We happened to play you that song, and you burst into tears each time. You must remember it from being in your Mummy’s tummy.” (Incidentally, “For Baby For Bobby” showed up on shuffle on my iPod at the exact moment Jay was born.)

I spent many an hour with my ear pressed up against my stereo speakers learning all the parts to the PP&M arrangements to teach to the high school folk singing group I led (“Humditties,” which I did not name) and later my college folk singing group, “Tangled Up in Blue” (which I did). Both were essentially PP&M cover bands. I loved those harmonies. I loved also the way Mary’s big alto, so mercifully in my own range, soared over the voices of the two men.

There’s a great song from one of their earliest records, “See What Tomorrow Brings” where Mary comes in on the third verse:

Never been contented no matter where I roam
It ain’t no fun to see the settin’ sun when you’re far away from home.

As with “For Baby, For Bobby,” just hearing her voice, the tone of it, the inflection of it, made me feel the opposite of “far away from home.” Rather, I felt like home had just arrived to surround me in the person of Mary’s warm familiar voice, my father’s stack of LPs (some of which I still have. I need to return them as my stereo is mouldering in the basement.)

Speaking of my dad, when I called to talk to him on Friday, he told me how PP&M had come to do a concert at his college in the early 60s. “This is a song by a great new young songwriter named Bob Dylan,” Peter said. And they sang “Blowing in the Wind.” It was the first time my father had ever heard of Dylan. The list of songwriters PP&M made famous by championing them and covering their songs is legion. Besides Dylan and John Denver, my first exposure to Pete Seeger, Shel Silverstein, Tom Paxton, Laura Nyro,even Rod Stewart was through PP&M.

I read in recent obits that when she started singing with Yarrow and Stookey, she never spoke from stage. Their manager, Al Grossman (who also managed Dylan) wanted her silent so as to create mystery. Watching her in the YouTube clip, above, I can’t help but wonder what she was thinking. Was she intimidated by Mama Cass and Joni Mitchell, or was she confident? Did she love the song she was singing? What did she think of that cheesy Musak-y accompaniment?

In Judith Thurman’s recent article in the New Yorker, my favorite author from childhood, Laura Ingalls Wilder, comes across as frumpish, reactionary and a little soft-headed: nothing like the defiant, lovable heroine of the Little House books that I read and re-read obsessively at age eight and nine. I read this article the day after Mary died, and it got me to thinking about the projection of personality which show business (as well as some forms of literature) requires us to do. There is not a lot of room for complexity out there. The media (and perhaps the human brain that created the media) likes simplicity. John was the smart, angry Beatle; George the spiritual one. Laura Ingalls was spunky. Mary Travers was sincere, righteous, sexual without being a threat. Also tall, leggy and slender. When any of our heroes and heroines stray from the box we put them in, the media (and our brains) has a reaction. Look at how much weight she gained! Look at how stupid he’s being! Look at how phoney that projection was! She’s not innocent and spunky! She’s mercenary, and she can’t even write a proper grammatical sentence! And the truth is, we are all so much more than any three word combination of adjectives. We all have a smart, a spiritual, an uneducated, a spunky, an innocent, a corrupted side of ourselves. Maybe we feel threatened by these revelations around our celebrities because it makes us come face to face with our own complexities and inconsistencies. It feels so reassuring to see Barack Obama behaving like a responsible gentleman, because that’s our image of him. When we see images of him riding a bike on Martha’s Vineyard without a helmet, we are shocked, disturbed even. What’s he doing being risky? He’s not a thrill seeker! He’s breaking character (also endangering the fragile head of our Head of State, but that’s another issue.)

The Mary we all saw in the sixties was much more complicated and interesting than the blond, leggy, silent-except-when-belting-her heart-out Greenwich Village waif we mostly got to see. She was a mother, for one thing. By the time Katryna and I got to watch her perform in person in the mid-80s, she was silent no longer. Au contraire: she was full of opinions. She was also significantly overweight, a fact she joked about from the stage. She was breaking all the rules, tossing out all the adjectives assigned to her. And through that singular revolution, she liberated two future folk singers.

Our friend Jordi Herold told us last week that when he was a teenager, his friend was dying of ALS, a ward of the state in a row of institutional beds. Somehow Mary had heard that this young person was a fan, and she came to the bedside and sang to her.

In 2007, Katryna and I would share a stage with Noel Paul Stookey at the World Folk Music Association fundraiser outside of Washington DC. He came backstage to tell us how much he’d loved our set, and I was (almost) tongue-tied. How could I tell him how much he had meant to us over the years, how much his kind attention in that moment meant to us? It was like Katryna’s recent story to William, about how the Beatles came back in a space machine to do a concert on the rooftop for William and William alone. That’s how magical it felt to have “Paul” come into our dressing room and praise us.

He said, that night, that Mary had been very sick, but that it looked like she was going to make it.

It’s so strange, and it feels so wrong that I will never get to take my kids to see Peter Paul & Mary do an outdoor summertime show; that they will only know “Puff The Magic Dragon” from CDs. But then again, it feels wrong that they don’t know my grandparents, or Tom’s father, or see the World Trade Center towers when coming east over I-80. It must have felt strange to my parents that I would never watch the New York Giants play baseball, or know their grandparents or my mother’s father. But they internalized these things and these people, and they told me the stories. They sang me the songs. That’s all we can do. We can sing “Going to the Zoo” and “Car Car” and pass along what we were given, and sing that top line with our best Mary Travers belt. Moreover, Katryna and I can try to live our beliefs and our values as bravely as Mary did, and sing along with her:

And when I die
And when I’m dead, dead and gone
There’ll be one child born
And a world to carry on
There’ll be one child born to carry on.
-Laura Nyro

Thanks to Sharon Goldberg for alerting me to the YouTube clip. And for selling our merch in New York!

The Comments

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  1. Thanks, Nerissa,
    This loss keeps coming back to me. I loved Mary Travers like a part of my family. I do think that part of my sadness has to do with the fact that my kids won’t ever experience what I got to. I guess that’s true of so so many things. Thank God for cds and videos and memories.

  2. Hey Nerissa –

    Great post. I, too, read that New Yorker article about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and had the same sort of “how could this be?” reaction. It is amazing how much of what I absorbed as a child (and adolescent) has become a sort of anchor for me now. I, too, deeply feel the loss of Mary Travers. Her voice makes me think of overalls and sandboxes.

    See you at Hoot.

    Emily (Hazel’s mama)

  3. I love this post, Nerissa. When I heard that Mary had died, I went straight to youtube so I could hear her voice and see her face. But instead of watching the Mary I knew, the one I grew up with in the 80s, I found myself drawn to the Mary of the 60s.

    From the Sydney Opera House:


    From the March on Washington:

    Tonight, I found this one of her singing For Baby:

  4. Thanks, Kris–I could watch these clips all day. There’s something so evocative about those three and the way they LOOK together. And I love the overalls and sandboxes reference, Emily.

    Thank God indeed for these ways to contain our memories.

  5. I know a lot of the credit goes to producer Milton Okun, but the most powerful PP&M moments were when Mary would come in on the final line of the stanza.

    And who could avoid stopping everything to listen when Mary would take a solo, such as in 500 Miles or Cruel War?

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