Something About Mary
I was driving to my favorite coffee shop early (Is it possible that I was actually driving “In the Early Mornin’ Rain”?) yesterday morning when I heard the news about the passing of Mary Travers on my car radio. That seems appropriate since, along with millions of other folks, I first “met” Mary Travers on the radio. As a boy growing up in the 50s and 60s in Boothbay Harbor the radio, in particular AM WBZ in Boston which we could get clear as a bell due to something called “skip distance,” was a magical place for me. It was a portal to another land filled with wonderful, talented folks who all seemed to know one another. I could eavesdrop for hours as they chatted around a microphone so happy to be there, so happy to play their latest song for me. The power of my youthful imagination was such that it was only after months of tuning in that I realized that what I was actually listening to was one person, alone in a little room in some huge high-rise building in the middle of Boston talking into a microphone and playing records. I’m not kidding. I was just crushed to discover that Elvis wasn’t actually in the building!
Anyway, somewhere around 1963 (I would have been twelve that year) I first heard the soaring, precise vocal harmonies of a new “Folk Act” through the tinny monophonic speaker of my dad’s gunmetal grey Halcrafters multi-band radio. Wow! That was pure magic (before there was even a ‘Puff”). I’m a sucker for tight vocal harmonies in popular music, having long believed that while most folks can’t tell a great guitar solo from a merely competent one, everybody knows great vocals when they hear ‘em. Peter Paul and Mary had great songs to be sure. But, the vocals were just flat-out spectacular.
My older sister Susie was my musical mentor throughout my childhood. Sue was straight out of central casting. A genuine 1950s “bobby soxer,” she actually wore “bobby sox.” She had at least one or two “poodle skirts” and in 1959 (I would have been eight) she and several giggly teenaged girlfriends would spend many long Saturday afternoons gathered around a little portable record player listening to a massive stack of 45s. It was through Susie that I discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and (my personal favorite) Ricky Nelson. A few years after her “teen idol” period, she fell hard for P.P. & M. She was the first person ever to insist that I sit down and LISTEN to an album all the way through, a pastime that was destined to become a near religious experience for me a few years later. As I sat on floor next to her, Susie dropped the needle on side one of the latest Peter, Paul and Mary album. It would be a better story if I could tell you which album it was or remember all the songs in the right order. Alas that information has been deleted from my hard drive. What I do recall, vividly, is that I felt as though I was “meeting” these folks. They felt like “friends” in a way that the teen crooners and jazz singers never did. I remember the clean intimacy of the arrangements, the power and urgency of he message, and my first taste of the bizarre and wonderful humor of “Paul” in what is still a great classic comedy bit, a comic sound effects-laced monologue called “Paultalk”.
So that was my introduction. I don’t think I fully appreciated Mary Travers voice until 1969, when I was bowled over by her chart-topping lead vocal on “ Leaving on a Jet Plane.” This one was in stereo and the car systems had gotten a lot better by then. Wow! In a radio environment crowded with female vocalists like Aretha Franklin, Grace Slick, and Janice Joplin, Mary Travers’ hauntingly powerful and evocative vocal on that song owned the airwaves.
Fast forward to Portland 1976 and the now twenty-five-year-old me gets a “big break” opening for none other than Noel “Paul” Stookey. The rest, as they say, is history. Noel and I became and remain close friends. Before long I was living in the guest house at Noel’s home in Blue Hill and we were collaborating on a number of projects including animated films and music projects. It was an exciting time. It became even more exciting in 1978 when Peter, Paul and Mary, now re-united as a group, recorded a new album and hit the road.
I met Mary for the first time “in person” backstage at Tanglewood following an amazing sold out P.P. & M show. I was in awe and I’m sure she didn’t remember anything about me other than that I was one of “Noel’s People.” As the years went by I met her several more times under similar circumstances and gradually we progressed to the “Hi, Mary. Hi, Tim. Great show! How are the kids?” level. Things got a bit more personal at a memorial service for Noel’s dad in Blue Hill a few years later. It was held in a very small room with just family and close friends. Peter, Paul and Mary sang together that day, just the three of them — no arena, no P.A. system, no adoring fans. There were two acoustic guitars and three voices blending magically and filling that small room. There was love.
A year or two later Mary’s daughter was engaged to the brother of an old friend of mine so I heard a lot about the plans for the pending nuptials. Shortly after the big event I was in the front row at a P.P.& M. show at the Cumberland County Civic Center when Mary launched into a flat-out hilarious twelve- to fifteen-minute monologue describing the endless absurdities of putting on a massive wedding in a massive home while a massive construction project was going on around her. I laughed so hard that I could barely catch my breath. Mary, the brilliant singer, had just nailed the audience with a world-class comedy routine and done it as easily as if she was gossiping over coffee with friends. I know better than most how hard it is to do that and make it look easy. That’s talent!
Years later I took my then thirteen-year-old daughter backstage in New Haven to meet the trio and she never forgot just shaking Mary’s hand and getting an encouraging word from a “star” of that caliber. Noel and I have always stayed in touch pretty regularly, so I knew of Mary’s health problems and followed her challenges, struggles, and phenomenal successes against incredibly steep odds.
The last time I saw Mary to speak to was following a P.P. & M. show three or four years ago in Portland. By then she was not getting around too well but her stage persona — billowing pantsuits, walking cane, and all — was pure, unadulterated show biz. A “grande dame,” she performed with grace, charm, and humor, leaving no doubt that despite her recent setbacks she could still belt ‘em out with the best of them.
Pop music is a fickle arena where acts, even truly gifted ones, come and go with alarming frequency. For the better part of fifty years, most of them shared with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, Mary Travers’ strong, clear passionate voice shaped the enduring soundtrack of American life. In my head she is singing “All my bags are packed. I’m ready to go.” Indeed, we’ll miss you, Mary. Godspeed.