Mary Travers has died at age 72. Her group, Peter, Paul, and Mary, were often scorned by folk purists who disdained their popularization of the folk idiom in the early-60s. But there can be little doubt that the group’s harmonies opened mainstream US society folk, with its long history of advocacy for civil rights, unions, and peace.
Through their covers of Bob Dylan’s songs, at a time when mainstream listeners would have been unwilling to listen to his decidedly un-Bobby Vee voice, created a broader interest in Dylan the composer and performer, placeholding for Dylan, so to speak, before he himself could go mainstream (or electric)
In the 1970s, Travers hosted a radio show syndicated for broadcast on Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations. The guest on her first show was Dylan, who had apparently accepted Travers’ invitation out of deference to the important role Peter, Paul, and Mary had played in his career, because Dylan wasn’t giving many interviews in those days and when he did, he left things as oblique and uncomfortable for the interviewer as possible.
Grateful or not, Dylan still insisted on giving, in turn, dadaist or nearly confrontational responses to Travers earnest attempts at conversation. It all started badly when Travers told Dylan how much she’d enjoyed his then-latest release, Blood on the Tracks (1974), an LP that largely chronicled the break-up of his first marriage. Dylan didn’t accept the compliment, telling Travers that he found it hard to understand how anybody could enjoy that much pain.
Maybe she hadn’t “enjoyed” the collection, Travers responded uncomfortably. Maybe “appreciated” was a better word.
Later, Travers tried to engage Dylan in a discussion about songwriting. “Do you write songs?” Dylan asked, reversing roles on Travers, once more adding to her discomfort. She explained that she wrote poetry and discussed it at some length. Dylan’s response: “Uh huh.”
I couldn’t help thinking of that interview when, some years later, it was announced that Dylan would host his own satellite radio show. But you can bet he would never leave himself in the position of being as vulnearble as Travers did thirty-five years ago.
But that seems evocative of the same admirable quality that led to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s success. Travers never aspired to be a professional singer, but one thing led to another. No master plan, just a girl with a voice, who sang the next song she was asked to sing.
I was never a Peter, Paul, and Mary fan. But they could be pleasant enough to listen to on my parents’ Stromberg Carlon stereo. (Dad had ordered several of P, P, & M albums and put their songs on whenever friends came by to play Canasta.)
Though Dylan may have been too cool and egotistical to overtly acknowledge his debt to P, P, & M, they cleared a path to the mainstream not only for folk music, but also for the political sensibility that was so important in Dylan’s music and that of so many others.
God give comfort and peace to Mary Travers’ family.
[The picture above, to the left is of Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Travers. Click to enlarge.][This has been crossposted at my personal blog.]