(Peter, Paul, and Mary * Folk)
Citation: Haynes, Cynthia. “Mary Travers.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r04
Abstract: Those were turbulent times, the 60s and 70s…Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Hendrix, the festivals, the scenes, but the music was powerful and I felt we were channeling a nation of young people full of anger and confusion (“stop children, what’s that sound”). With Peter and Paul, our trio tried to do justice to traditional folk songs, and we had a perfect blend of harmony. We shared a need to speak out, to shout out, through the music. Civil Right and the Vietnam were catalysts for an endless stream of songs that had been written both before and during the 60s in which we vocalized the mantra of “peace” and love.
Keywords: Folk, Mary Travers, Cixous, Civil Rights.
I was around 12 years old when my parents took me to see a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early 60s. I still have the poster I took down from the venue. Their recording of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver (a native Fort Worth singer/songwriter) in 1966 would become my favorite song that decade. I could identify with Mary Travers because I, too, had long blond hair, loved folk music, and was learning through such music that political dissent in the late 60s was a strong form of activism. In a New York Times piece written about Mary Travers’ memorial service, “Theodore Bikel, the actor and singer, pithily tied together Ms. Travers’s roles as political activist and glamorous pop-music touchstone. ‘There were other people besides Mary who taught us that dissent was right and dissent was just,’ he said. ‘But only Mary taught us that dissent was also beautiful’” (Sisario).
Mary Travers wraps her voice around children in a lullaby, lovers leaving, living and dying. Her rhetorical range is drawn from a seamless canvas on which her life and career are inseparable, her opinions informed her music and the music shaped her life. I’m reminded of a writer like Hélène Cixous whose writing is lyrical, personal, theoretical, rhetorical, creative, and always political. A passage from Cixous could easily connect to Mary singing “And When I Die”:
We don’t believe in death. We never stop thinking about death. Grief and mourning begin long before the event, begin on the first day of love, for years we fear, but we don’t believe, fear doesn’t believe, certitude stays outside the door, outside the skin . . . . we inhabit the country of the living; that which is beyond, outside—we don’t have the heart to believe. We can’t believe in death in advance, it remains inadmissible. Our immortality is: not-believing-in-death. (71)
But Mary lives on through the music and the familiar swinging of her beautiful hair as she belted out “If I Had a Hammer,” and countless other protest anthems.
Mary Travers’s Rocktalog Opening Statement
Those were turbulent times, the 60s and 70s…Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Hendrix, the festivals, the scenes, but the music was powerful and I felt we were channeling a nation of young people full of anger and confusion (“stop children, what’s that sound”). With Peter and Paul, our trio tried to do justice to traditional folk songs, and we had a perfect blend of harmony. We shared a need to speak out, to shout out, through the music. Civil Right and the Vietnam were catalysts for an endless stream of songs that had been written both before and during the 60s in which we vocalized the mantra of “peace” and love.
“One of the great joys in singing is sculpting sound. I remember once having to sing the word ‘peace’ and wanting it to sound distinctly different from any other words in the sentence. The image in my head was that I wanted to sing the word so it would start to melt and be oozing but stay solid. I wanted the word ‘peace’ to feel like peace of mind. I wanted to translate peace in a universal sense to a specific feeling of internal peace” (34). And peace was/is crucial. For Folk Music singers, who often sing traditional songs, the lyrics can’t be changed…but you can “emphasize one word more than another” (39). “For instance, I did Graham Nash’s ‘Southbound Train’ on my third album. The lyrics were very appropriate politically for their time, which was after the McGovern defeat in 1972. The last verse goes:
Fraternity, failing to fight back the tears
Will it take an eternity breaking the fears?
What will the passenger do when he hears
That he’s already paid for the crown
On the southbound train going down
For me, that was a very valuable kind of lyric—it said something to us embittered and griping Democrats who had paid for the crown” (39). If I had a hammer, I’d sing it in the morning…right now! I tried not to sing-shout, but the pain and anger needed an outlet, a vehicle, I wanted to be the relay for every cruelty, and every kindness. It wasn’t easy. But it was who I was. I cared. We cared. We fought in the only way we could—for freedom, for peace, for love. I think if I had to choose a favorite song, one that says everything about the music, those times, it would be “The Great Mandala.” Peter wrote it and when we first performed it, we only had a note with the lyrics scribbled on it. It’s haunting and haunted. “Take your place on the great mandala/as it moves through your brief moment of time/win or lose now, you must choose now/and if you lose, you’re only losing your life.”
Cixous, Hélène. Stigmata: Escaping Texts. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Travers, Mary. Mary Travers: A Woman’s Words. With Mike Renshaw. CreateSpace Publishing, 2013. Print.
Sisario, Ben. “Mary Travers is Praised for her Voice and Her Words” New York Times. 10 Nov 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/arts/music/11travers.html?_r=0. 27 Oct 2017. Web.