On the Death of Mary Travers

By Kennedy Maize

This blog has nothing to do with energy or power.  It’s about music.

But I suspect that there are enough readers out there who will connect with it to make the blog worthwhile.

I’m writing about the death on Sept. 16 of Mary Travers, 72, the dominant force of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Some of you may never have heard the group, which led the folk revival of the early 1960s. But for me, and others of my age, they were seminal.

This blog is based on some email exchanges with close friends of my age, who revered the group as much as I did, for their music and their (left-wing) politics.

I loved PPM, but never saw them live, as some of my friends did. I was particularly blown away by Mary’s voice: strong, true, soaring. Peter and Paul were backup; she was the show musically and physically, with her characteristic gesture of head-tossing her long, blond hair as she sang. She was an icon, inspiring, among other imitators, a character in the Muppets.

I began, an early teen, as an R&B and doo-wop fan of the music of the late 1950s, as they morphed into early Rock and Roll. Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens. Elvis.

I liked folk a lot in my early years in college, and later in the civil rights and anti-war days after college. Dave Van Ronk was hard-core. Dylan was genius. Judy Collins had a lovely, pure voice. Pete Seeger was a minor god; I was a major figure in getting him to come to the National Institutes of Health for a large anti-war rally when I worked there (1970-1976). But PPM were primo.

I will confess, I have a particular fondness for female singers in all genres, hence my love for Mary Travers’s vocals.

Then the Beatles came along. Dylan went electric. And Motown, oh, Motown. Farewell, folk.

Went through a Country phase in the late 1970s and 1980s, when I couldn’t relate to what then was R&R. I particularly liked classic Country, including Ray Charles, George Jones, and, my favorite of all time, a local girl (Winchester, Va.), Patsy Cline, one of the greatest voices in any genre. I’m also a big Willie Nelson fan. His work defies catagorization.

In recent years, I’ve retreated to classic jazz, which is great to listen to when I’m writing. Among modern performers of classic jazz, my favorite is singer-pianist Diana Krall (her “Cry Me a River” is stunning. It’s bitter, with an in-your-face message to her former lover). From the 60s, I like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers a lot. Also Mingus, Monk, Miles.

On a local (Prince Georges County, Md.) note, the late Eva Cassidy was very special. I actually cry, real tears down the face, whenever I hear her “Autumn Leaves.” It is probably the most beautiful female vocal I’ve ever heard. There is a depth of sadness in everything she did in her short life that stabs into my heart.

Sorry to subject you to this personal and eclectic musical tour, but the death of Mary Travers got me into a musical reverie.

One of my email correspondents recalled his last live PPM concert, at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., in 2006, the opening of the George and Eleanor McGovern Library, when Mary Travers was recuperating from the leukemia that finally killed her this year. He wrote, “They were wonderful, particularly when they got George to sing his favorite folk song with them: ‘Freight Train.’”

By the way, “Freight Train” is another local (Washington, D.C.)  classic. Libba Cotten, who was a maid for the Seeger family in D.C., helping to raise Pete, Mike, and sisters Peggy, Penny, and Barbara, picked up a guitar after several decades of not playing, and kindled a career late in her life.

I saw her play many times in D.C. in the 1960s and 70s, several times in intimate settings, just Ms. Cotten and half-a-dozen fans in a small room in her apartment. She was left-handed and played a right-handed acoustic guitar “upside down (first string high, last string low)” as she had learned as a girl in North Carolina, from playing banjo.

Forgive my musical ramblings, but, for me, that makes a nice break from energy and environmental politics. So much more interesting than cap’n’trade.