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Mary Travers, 1936-2009

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Folk singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame died Tuesday, owing to side effects from leukemia therapies. She was 72.

I have been a Peter, Paul and Mary fan almost from the moment they released their first self-titled album back in the early 1960s. They brought folk music into the mainstream owing to their superior harmonies, intricate arrangements, and the deft artistry of both Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey on guitar. They took the more rough-hewn recordings of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and others, mainly from the American folk tradition, and added elements of musicianship and, yes, a bit of polish.

While I later became a Dylan fan, at first I was put off by his almost atonal performances. Dylan owes a good deal to Peter, Paul and Mary. His great songs might well have lingered in relative anonymity had PP&M among others not reincarnated them more pleasingly to the ear.

I had four separate encounters with Mary Travers – all many years ago. They were all simply moments, nothing substantive, but in each case coming face to face with her towering personage (she stood at or near 6 feet) – with someone who to me was an icon – left a definite impression on me.

PP&M performed at Indiana University on a Saturday evening back in the fall of 1964. I got tickets, and had a date who didn't give a rat's ass about me but was willing to go through what was likely for her an otherwise excruciating evening to see and hear them in concert.

The Friday before, I was in the IU Bookstore shopping for I don't remember what exactly, when, rounding a rack of books, I ran headlong into Ms. Travers coming the other way around. We both dropped whatever we were carrying. I stood for a beat, likely with my jaw dropping to the floor, as recognition set in. I was totally flummoxed. We both knelt down to retrieve our respective books, notepads and whatnot; me, with what I'm sure was a large, stupid grin on my face, mumbling something unintelligible. As we stood, I believe I did manage to utter some sort of apology, as did she, and we went our separate ways. I'm sure my breathing took a good deal longer to return to some semblance of normalcy than hers did. I had a tale to tell back at the dorm.

The next afternoon our dormitory's social committee had managed to entice Peter Yarrow to attend a kind of fireside chat about the whoop-de-do that was then being made over the lyrics of "Puff the Magic Dragon," with charges by some that they were an allusion to smoking that evil weed, marijuana. At the appointed time about fifteen or twenty students gathered with Peter in the main lounge of the dorm. A while after the discussion started, Mary suddenly appeared and sat down outside the circle of us spread around Peter. Of course a bunch of us jumped up, again in a fumbling, rather spastic manner, imploring her to take a more central seat. She demurred, saying that she preferred just to listen, which she did, only interjecting a comment here and there. At one point our eyes met, and I felt an immediate flush of embarrassment, but she showed no signs of recognition. She just smiled and flipped her great blond hair back from her eyes.

By the way, Mary Travers was a very good-looking woman at that time. Most younger people know her, if at all, only from photos and videos taken fairly late in life. Not that she was unattractive, but she had – as so many of us have – gained a good deal of weight. That, along with aging and her fight against leukemia, did take a toll.

A few years later, yours truly found himself working for TWA (aka Teenie Weenie Airlines) at the Indianapolis airport. As I was pretty much a dud on the ticket counter, I was often consigned to "Baggage Services," the airline euphemism for lost and (occasionally) found.

One evening, while sitting at my desk in the tiny office set aside for Baggage Services, the door sprang open, and I looked up startled to once again see Mary Travers standing before me. She was quite addled. The airline had managed to lose one of her bags. (No,really!) She was, I must admit, rather beside herself and made only minimal sense while shouting out a plethora of colorful and generally denigrating metaphors to voice her displeasure at me, TWA, and pretty much the whole world, which apparently had once again betrayed her.

Fortunately, our PR guy soon appeared, took her in hand, and thankfully, took her out of my office. At that time it was widely believed that Mary, along with all people to the left of Heinrich Himmler, were dopers. I suppose she may have had some kind of stash in the bag in question, I don't know. Keep in mind, this was back around 1970. The very first plane hijackings had only recently taken place. There were no airport security checks, no x-rays or luggage searches, no drug dogs. People could, and doubtless often did, fly about the country with their favorite recreational drugs stowed securely in their Samsonites. But again, I have no idea whether that was the case. I don't recall how it was all resolved, but we all managed to survive into the next day, happily including Mary Travers.

A year or so later I was living in the Big Apple where, among other things, I drove a cab for about a year. One evening I had a fare from Manhattan out to the Pan Am Terminal at Kennedy Airport. I usually didn't like taking fares to any of the three NYC airports, as I usually wound up driving back into the city empty. But in this instance, I had just dropped off my fare when the rear door popped open and in slid two breathless people with luggage in hand. I only got a glimpse of one of the them in my rear view mirror – a guy. Their destination: The Plaza Hotel. Yes!

I was aware the other passenger was a woman, but I could only manage to see a small slice of her head in the mirror without obviously craning my neck. I was generally not all that interested in seeing my fares anyhow, given the natural or acquired New Yorker proclivity for anonymity. After a while they all just became one faceless fare after another. But a few minutes into the ride back to Manhattan, the woman began conversing with her fellow passenger – who, I suppose, could have been her husband. Simply hearing her speak a few words, I knew her voice; it was unmistakable. I craned my neck. Indeed it was she. Mary Travers was a passenger in my cab. Woohoo!

Her companion was soon dozing, but she became chatty during the over 30-minute trip to the Plaza. I mentioned our run-in at the IU Bookstore a few years before and the subsequent discussion with Peter the next day. She had no memory of either. I admit I was rather crestfallen. I was so sure I had made an indelible impression on her. Alas, no. I had the good sense to not bring up the Indy airport encounter.

During the course of my stint in NYC, I ran into a number of luminaries. Frankly, it would be unusual for anyone spending more than a few days in the city NOT to bump into or at least spot someone of note. But driving Mary Travers to the Plaza was perhaps my most memorable brush with the rich and famous. Even though she had no recollection of our bookish encounter, during her ride to the Plaza she was very talkative, funny, gracious, AND, at the end, a good tipper.

I haven't brought myself to start playing PP&M albums just yet, but I'll probably slip one or two into my CD player in a day or two to hear Mary's plaintive voice once again.

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  • klondikekitty

    Thank you so much for your colorful tribute to Mary Travers . . . As an 18-yr-old flower child in 1970, Peter, Paul and Mary were among my favorite musicians, and I listened eagerly as each new song of theirs hit the airwaves . . . . As I told one of my friends when I learned she had died, “Well, I don’t think God wants to listen to harp music ALL the time, so maybe she is singing her songs to Him now” I like to believe that she is . . .