Feature

Mary Travers

The singer who was one-third of Peter, Paul and Mary

Mary Travers
1936–2009

In 1961, music manager Albert Grossman was trying to form a folk-singing group that he hoped could rival the Kingston Trio. While he knew Mary Travers from the Greenwich Village folk coffeehouse scene, he was sure she was too shy to sing professionally. But struggling singer Peter Yarrow was drawn by a picture of Travers he saw while talking to Grossman, and he knocked on her door. Soon, Travers, Yarrow, and comedian/singer Noel Stookey—whose middle name was Paul—formed Peter, Paul and Mary, becoming one of the most successful folk acts of the 1960s. The blond, willowy Travers provided both a ringing voice and wholesome sex appeal.

The daughter of liberal writers, Travers moved with her family from Louisville to Manhattan when she was 2, said the Los Angeles Times. “She was singing in various folk groups when she was in her teens
and was a member of the Song Swappers, which recorded two albums with Pete Seeger.” When she joined Yarrow and Stookey, they rehearsed for seven months in her third-floor walkup before debuting at the Bitter End, an iconic Village folk club. Their first album, Peter Paul & Mary (1962), spent seven weeks at No. 1 and yielded the top 10 hit “If I Had a Hammer.”

To such songs as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Travers “brought a powerful voice and an unfeigned urgency that resonated with mainstream listeners,” said The New York Times. With their guitars and goatees, Yarrow and Stookey exuded a “mildly bohemian look.” But it was Travers who “drew all eyes as she shook her hair, bobbed her head in time to the music, and clenched a fist when the lyrics took a dramatic turn.” Grossman told her never to speak on stage, “to retain an air of mystery.”

Peter, Paul and Mary won five Grammys, said the London Times. They were at the forefront of the protest movements of the 1960s, performing at the Lincoln Memorial during Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic March on Washington. “Throughout her life, Travers was immensely proud that King had asked her to hold his child on her lap while he spoke.” But as rock supplanted folk, the trio’s popularity waned. Folk purists also derided them as safely commercial, especially when they had a No. 2 hit with the children’s song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The group’s last major hit, in 1969, was “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

Travers remained politically active, especially on anti-nuclear issues, and performed with Yarrow and Stookey until a few months before her death from leukemia.

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