I grew up in a house full of music, most of it coming from my Dad’s old Sears Silvertone Turntable, which I’ve written about previously in this space. My childhood was filled with music ranging from Prokofiev to Mahler, Sam Cooke to Elvis, and from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Yes. We had the Original Broadway cast recordings of West Side Story and Music Man on heavy rotation as well, and I remember then all well and can’t hear them today without remembering my childhood.
Peter, Paul and Mary always meant something different to me, and I was sad to read that Mary Travers died today, at the age of 72 after a long bout with leukemia. In a year fraught with celebrity deaths, hers loss and her impact on music and culture will likely be far less heralded than that of Michael Jackson, or Les Paul, or John Hughes. But she, and her group, mattered a great deal to her generation, her fans, and to me.
Peter, Paul and Mary were among the first groups to popularize the work of Bob Dylan, and were steadfast in their support of peace, justice, and civil rights, and performed Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke famously about a variety of topics, and said a great many things, including, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
For some reason, on revisiting the 1963 speech, that line struck me.
But I remember listening to their music as a kid, and as I grew older, I remember watching a PBS concert with my parents, as we didn’t have cable, and it was on, and my homework was done for a change, and I liked music, so I watched it.
(here is a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0DPyqg59TA )
Now, like most young guys who are into music, I had a beat up acoustic guitar I’d bought from some guy for $5 in my closet, and didn’t let the fact that I didn’t have a clue as to how to play it stop me from trying to impress girls. And I certainly didn’t let lessons or actual study get in my way of playing that old guitar. But I remember watching this Peter, Paul and Mary concert on PBS and staring at the hands of both Peter and Paul, and noticing that they seemed to play very fluidly and very calmly and very much similar chords on a lot of their songs. So, I figured, if I learned to play a few of their songs, I’d be on my way to not only actually sounding like something other than a tortured feline while playing, but maybe learning enough chords to do something interesting.
So, on days when I got home from school early enough, before my Dad was home to catch me, I’d pop on the old VHS, as we had of course recorded the concert, so we could fast-forward through the copious pledge breaks, and sounded out the chords. The G, the D, the C chords came easy. That seemed to cover a lot of the vintage folk tunes. Once that sophomore dude with the long hair taught me A minor and E Minor, I was pretty much convinced I now had the tools with which to set the world on fire.
So, for the most part, Peter, Paul and Mary taught me to play guitar. And for better and for worse, that has become a very significant part of my life to date. Now, I don’t play as much as I used to, but there was a time I played a lot. I subjected audiences in Princeton, Wooster, Philly, and a few clubs in NYC, not far from The Bitter End, where Mary Travers once sang for the first time with Peter and Paul, to my brand of music to varying results. I like to say that I have “retired” from such performances…but that’s a bit of an overstatement.
Beyond that, I remember a very early date at my parents’ house with a high school girlfriend where I’d had to secure permission to have her have dinner with us with the understanding being that she really wanted to watch the PBS concert on video. We did watch it, with our portions of popcorn strategically placed in separate bowls by my parents, so as to keep our hands from touching…
I had a chance to see them live in Jersey with one of my best friends back in the early 90’s, and was blown away by their ability to move the crowd. I got to meet Peter after the show, as she and I both pretended to be part of a group of exchange students from Russia…but that is another story altogether…perhaps in the next novel…
They made music together for over 40 years, and along the way championed some interesting ideas like equality, peace, justice and overwhelming humanity. I admire that.
I played one of their records (yes, on vinyl) tonight for the kids, and they really grooved on it. The danced around, and the girls really liked Mary’s voice. The boyo liked the song about the horse (“Stewball”) and joined his sisters in bopping around to the songs. I talked to them about why the group was important and referenced the Dylan songs they did, as the kids know Dylan, so it was a reasonable teaching point. I actually found myself getting a little emotional during “Puff the Magic Dragon” while looking at my son, as he was at that moment lounging on the couch in his post-homework relaxation, listening to the words and thinking about him growing up. The moment was particularly poignant in the light of some of the challenges and adjustments that we’ve been managing of late.
In the end, the kids liked the record and want to hear it again. That works for me.
I don’t know what they’ll say about me after I’m gone, and I won’t speculate on how they will categorize me as a parent, but I’ll say this: I hope they always feel like there was music in their lives and that they value it. There were times in my life that the music was most assuredly vital to the life I have led. There were times that it was in fact the only thing I felt I had not only to give, but also to hold onto.
I recall Mary Travers saying of Peter and Paul, late in their career together something akin to “If I’d have found either one of them attractive, we wouldn’t be here…” That still makes me laugh.
In the end, I’m not sure I would ever have bothered to try to teach myself guitar without them, and for that I am grateful. I won’t speak for my audiences over the years, but I was immeasurably changed by the door to performance being opened by their graceful performance and by her soaring vocals.
So, God Speed Mary Travers. Your day is done… Seems only appropriate to share that song too:
Aloha, for now.