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Voices -- Mary Travers, 1936 - 2009

September 16, 2009 |  7:08 pm





Peter, Paul & Mary Keep the Faith


Folk music: Trio's public TV special airing on KOCE Channel 50, new family album and video feature familiar ethnic and traditional songs that define group
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 March 13, 1993

Jan. 12, 1966, Mary Travers By LYNNE HEFFLEY, TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't all free love and hallucinogens in the '60s. Hundreds of thousands marched for civil rights and peace, and folk music was the galvanizing voice of freedom and change.

Peter, Paul and Mary, the legendary trio who helped promulgate that spirit of activism, could be considered relics of a decade of chaos and transmutation, but for the fact that they've kept the faith for more than 30 years.

Together and separately, Peter Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey and Mary Travers have raised their voices for peace, for a nuclear-free America, to support the homeless and to protest apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses in El Salvador, the Middle East and the then-Soviet Union.

In January, they performed in the Reunion on the Mall inaugural event, in the capital where they once marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "It's so nice to be on the friends list for a change," Travers said.

This month, the trio has released "Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too"--25 years after their first family album, "Peter, Paul & Mommy"--along with a companion concert video and PBS special.

If that sounds a bit trendy--isn't everyone doing children's music these days?--it should be noted that this celebratory album, with its familiar ethnic and traditional folk songs and some timely new works, singularly defines the group and its years together.

"Part of what folk music is about is a sense of continued legacy," Yarrow said. "At this point in our lives, we are keenly aware that we are the carriers of a legacy that we inherited and want very much to hand down."

And, with direct appeal for adults as well as children, the concert also marks a new cause for the group: the affirmation of the family in both the personal and national sense.

"Sometimes we have to sort of re-examine classical values," Travers said. "Caring about one another, helping each other, wanting a better, safer world--those are values that haven't changed for thousands of years."

Recorded in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theatre in New York, the concert progresses from the whimsy of "Puff (the Magic Dragon)" and "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" to Woody Guthrie's haunting "Pastures of Plenty" and Yarrow's prayerful rendition of "We Shall Overcome."

In the video version, old and young are seen singing along to what Yarrow calls "everybody songs" as opposed to children's songs.

"It is not a children's album, but it's not not a children's album, either," Yarrow said. "It does not talk down to them or infantilize them. It engages them in the partnership of the generations."

Underscoring that partnership is a segment in which Travers croons a lullaby to her granddaughter, while her daughter, seated in the audience, fights tears.

"I was trying to mix this song," Yarrow said, "and had to keep stopping because I was so moved by the humanity, warmth and intelligence that this strong woman is bringing to two beloved generations following her."

Another connection made between young and old, Yarrow said, is Stookey's ability to "enter into a child's world of delight and get totally crazy-silly, and wondrously so."

"A new cultural view of ourselves" is essential, Yarrow said. "We need songs, films, poems, theater pieces and paintings that will help people to personally, emotionally, internally affirm that we do care about each other."

That the three singers care about each other is obvious in their seemingly effortless harmonies and shared warmth. The activism that is an integral part of their lives is in evidence as well. Guthrie's anthem for migrant farm workers is briefly put in modern context, and there is a musical reminder that no race is truly "pure."

"I have a sort of sampler in my head," Travers said, "that--paraphrasing the rabbinical scholar--says, 'It's not your duty to finish the task, it is your duty not to neglect it.' If war and hunger and racism were easy things to get rid of, I would assume we would have gotten rid of them already."

About the audience's emotional reaction to Yarrow's singing of "We Shall Overcome," Travers said, "Sometimes it's important to re-listen to things. He sings it so sweetly that he resurrects its beauty and the cliche falls away.

"The nice thing about folk music is that if you don't get it today, it'll wait for you. The music has power; that's why it survives. It just has to be passed on."

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