sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

September 17, 2009

after all, [we]’ve come to know you
posted by soe 3:52 am

Mary Travers, one third of the folk music and political activist group Peter, Paul, and Mary, died yesterday of complications related to bone marrow cancer.

I can’t believe how painful it is to write that. We knew she was sick. Peter Yarrow had announced back in August that it was unlikely the trio would perform again together. But, yet, she’d beaten the cancer into remission several years ago when the doctors told her she wouldn’t. We were sure, even if no one said so, that she would vanquish her foe once more. But sometimes the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

If you’re around my age, this might have been one of the first Peter, Paul, and Mary songs you learned:

To be honest, I don’t remember what my first PPM song was, in the same way I don’t remember my first sip of milk. My brother and I were raised to believe music was as integral to life as food or air. We couldn’t have imagined it possible to live without.

If you asked my brother and me to come up with the top five artists we heard growing up, you’d probably get pretty similar lists: Peter, Paul, and Mary. Harry Chapin. John Denver. The Beatles. Maybe Simon & Garfunkel or maybe The Beach Boys. There were others, but these were the constants — played at least once a week, if not more frequently.

Such was our intimacy with them that we could tell you that, while Mary’s voice was angelic in the 1960s, blending harmoniously with Peter and Paul, as she aged, she lost the top end of her register. She made up for it, though, by transposing the key down and by increasing her volume. During the 1990s, I think she could have kept pace with Vance Gilbert and Julie Murphy Wells in her ability to sing over a noisy crowd (and, at times, accompanying instruments and vocals). It wasn’t a bad change, but it was a change. Yet still we embraced her songs

The first time I saw PPM was at the Oakdale, back when it was still a summer theater in the round. They performed “Lemon Tree” and “Stewball.” And I remember Mary coming out into the audience to borrow bobby pins from someone to pin up her long hair on a sultry evening under hot lights.

The next time we saw them was only a year or so later at Yale’s Woolsey Hall. I think I remember the beginnings of Yale’s anti-apartheid shanty town when we were walking from the car to the concert hall. I definitely remember them singing “El Salvador” and their exhortation to fight for those who desperately needed our help. I remember being impressed by how Mary’s voice could fill such a large hall.

In the late ’80s, my parents took us to New York City to see PPM’s holiday show. I had been to the city before then and returned many times after, but perhaps this of all my trips is cemented most firmly in my mind because of the bitter cold and the seemingly interminable walk from Grand Central in our good clothes. Inside, though, it was warm and the staging was lush. There were sets and choirs and just a massive crowd all singing along with holiday and Peter, Paul, and Mary favorites. I recall “The Cherry Tree Carol,” which is beautifully sung and arranged, but, which is a downer if you listen to the lyrics. “Light One Candle,” on the other hand, is a December standard in our house. I love how it starts so softly and ends in such a joyously big way.

The final time our whole family saw them was a year or two later. We’d come down to D.C. for a long weekend and spent much of our time, if my memory is correct, marvelling at how large the Tyson Square Mall was. The concert was at Wolf Trap, but my parents had sprung for indoor seats, probably figuring that a teenager and a pre-teen were not going to be pleasant company if it rained. “My Marvelous Toy” is the song that stands out in my mind from that show. That and when a baby cried in one of the rows near the stage, Mary demanded that it be handed to her so she could sing it back to sleep. Mary remarked that when people came up to her to say they’d been raised attending her concerts, she knew they really meant they’d slept through them.

The next morning, while breakfasting in the hotel dining room, my parents noticed Peter, Paul, and Mary’s longtime bassist, Dick Knise, eating nearby. I don’t remember if the other guys were with him or not, but we left them to dine in peace. Shortly after breakfast, though, my brother and I harangued my parents into letting us go hang out outside. Down we went to the parking lot, where who should we see but Mary? Had the decision been left up to me, that’s where the story would have ended. My brother knew, however, that my folks would be tickled to meet her and hurried back upstairs to get them. I don’t know how fast they made the elevator fly down the stories, but soon they were outside congratulating her on a fine performance the previous night and explaining that I had, in fact, not slept through concerts as a baby. Mary was kind and polite. I was, as a typical teenager, mortified.

Twenty summers later found Rudi, my folks, and me back at Wolf Trap for what would be the final concert Rudi and I would see of the trio. Mary had been sick, but was well again in August 2007, sporting a close-cropped ‘do and her ever feisty attitude. She was clearly more tired, but she insisted on scooting her own seating around the stage, saying it was a piece of cake compared to all the walk-ups she’d moved in and out of in her early days of performing. The three of them shared favorite moments of the city, including when they were dragged in handcuffs from the South African embassy one Thanksgiving morning as they were protesting apartheid. They urged the crowd to go to jail as a family for a worthwhile cause. The crowd could see Mary was still in her recovery stage and there was such an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and love out on the lawn that it was palpable.

My favorite concert of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s wasn’t so much a concert as it was a brief appearance. When Rudi and I moved to D.C. in 2003, we’d gone to a rally protesting the impending invasion of Iraq and been disillusioned by the haphazard approach liberals took in expressing their opinions (disorganized and straying too frequently from the message and cause at hand). But that night we heard there would be a candlelight vigil at the Lincoln Memorial. Peter, Paul, and Mary showed up and led us all in the most moving version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” I’ve ever witnessed as we passed the peace and the light from candle to candle and from person to person. It was chilling in its poignancy and inspiring in its ongoing optimism.

How do you say thank you to someone who’s been such a part of your life, without her ever knowing it? I’m not sure I possess the words. Thank you, Mary, for sharing our lives, for inspiring us to climb mountaintops, for weaving sunshine into our days. We will try to live up to your example and your expectations of us.

Category: arts. There is/are 4 Comments.

Thank you for posting this. Now the tears are flowing.

Even though I’m not a believer, it must be said: bless you, Mary Travers.

Comment by Rudi 09.17.09 @ 6:59 am

I’m not sure I possess the words – kirsten, i think you did a pretty good job. what a great heartfelt entry. hugs

Comment by laura 09.17.09 @ 7:01 am

I often joked that you and your brother saw PPM so many times, you didn’t know other performers gave concerts. Your mom & I got to see PPM in at the Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pa and the stage was right next to the train tracks. During the middle of the concert a freight train noisily rumbled past, and the Trio did an impromptu verse of Freight Train. We also saw them for the final time in March in Waterbury. Thank you Mary for being such an important part of our lives.

Comment by DOD 09.17.09 @ 10:12 am

@Rudi: I needed to write it to stem my own.

@Laura: Thank you.

@DOD: I’m glad we got the opportunity to experience them in person so often. Thank you for that!

Comment by soe 09.23.09 @ 2:02 am