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Remembering Mary Travers

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Michael Putland

Remembering Mary Travers

In a soft but strong voice, singer Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary called for social change. The type of change could differ based on the audience, as she herself once noted in The New York Times about "Blowin' in the Wind," the Bob Dylan song her trio first made famous. Travers also sang the song at the 1963 March on Washington.

The song, Travers said in the interview, "takes on a different meaning everywhere. When you sing the line, 'How many years can a people exist, before they're allowed to be free?' in a prison yard for political prisoners in El Salvador, if you have sung it to a group of union organizers – who have all been in jail – in South Korea, if you've sung that song to Soviet Jews who have been refused exit visas, if you've sung it with Bishop Tutu, the song breathes, it lives, it has a currency."

Travers – who died five years ago Sept. 16 at age 72 after a long fight with leukemia – remains beloved by folk music fans around the world. Legacy.com discussed her continuing influence with folk singer Doris Justis, who is vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based World Folk Music Association and a huge fan of Peter, Paul and Mary.

During the folk music movement of the late 1950s and '60s, Peter, Paul and Mary stood out because of Travers, Justis said:

"She was a woman, singing with two guys. She often had the melody and usually women were in the background. It was very cool to see this woman, college age, being the voice of the band. The songs were so singable and everybody wanted to sing along."

The band members were never quiet about their political views, including their opposition to the war in Vietnam and their belief in racial equality. These seemingly gentle songs were making powerful statements, Justis said:

"It was the music of the protest movement. Folk musicians seemed to be the ones carrying the torch. Just being there, with a guitar and a voice, had a lot of force. The songs had messages and people listened to the lyrics. It's not just sound. It's important what's being said.

"I used to say they were on their soapboxes. They stood out and stood up. They weren't afraid. They marched and they protested and they were put in jail."

Although the band broke up briefly in the 1970s, they reconnected and performed together until Travers' death. Their sense of doing what was right, together or alone, never changed. In 1986, the title song of their album No Easy Walk to Freedom was dedicated to Nelson Mandela. In 2002, Travers, a Connecticut resident, joined others in a battle to conserve more than 15,000 acres of land and sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" to celebrate the campaign's success:

"They did songs that were relevant right up until the end. … The last couple of times I saw them, at Wolf Trap in Virginia, everybody was standing and singing. There were all generations there, lots of new, little kids too. They were beloved."

Peter, Paul and Mary were the most successful folk group of the 1960s, with 13 songs making it to Billboard's Top 40 list. Two songs penned by John Denver were among the hits. Both were tweaked by Travers:

"'Leaving on a Jet Plane' was John Denver's song, but he called it, 'Babe, I Hate to Go.' Mary asked if they could change the title. This was before John Denver was a household name, and he said OK. Another song she loved was 'For Bobby.' She asked John if she could call it 'For Baby.' She changed a couple of words, made it a lullaby and that's what's stuck."

Travers was ill with leukemia for a long time and was open with her audience about her health issues. She was inspiring, Justis said:

"She went through so much but she was someone who could just push on through all the things that were happening to her physically. She even performed onstage in a wheelchair. That says a lot about her. She was determined. … Mary is so missed."

Social activism remains part of folk music, Justis said:

"I don't think it's as obvious as it was in the '60s. There are a lot of newer groups and they do all the old favorites, but this is the age of the singer-songwriter and a lot of folks out there write their own music. It's not, 'I love you' music. It's about relevant issues of the day."

For the teenage Justis growing up near Washington, D.C., listening to Peter, Paul and Mary was a small act of rebellion. She explained:

"My parents were older parents. My mom had my sister and (me) in her 40s and she was always worried about the music I was listening to. I hid my folk albums, the Peter, Paul and Mary albums. I pretended I didn't know who they were when they were down on the Mall for civil rights marches. I don't know if there were a lot of other parents who felt that way. In the end, though, they became fans of the music."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."