When I was around eight years old, my mother bought me the Halloween costume of my choice: Beatnik. We purchased it at Woolworth’s, where it lay in a plastic bag among similarly packaged ghosts and witches and skeletons. It consisted of a long-haired, platinum wig attached to a black beret and came with a long cigarette holder. I don’t remember if the costume also came with a black turtleneck, but I do recall dressing in a little black outfit and that my mother did my make-up, complete with heavily darkened eyes and very pale lips. I knew about beatniks, because my parents were into jazz and other “hip” things. I thought it was all very cool.
Two years later in 1962, I discovered folk music and bought my very first album with my very own money. It was Peter, Paul and Mary’s debut and there on the cover was Sweet Mary, the quintessential hipster with the darkened eyes and pale lips. I loved their music and I was particularly enchanted by her. I remember sitting in the living room listening to that album over and over while looking at its cover, which showed two handsome young men with goatees and a beautiful blond, all leaning against a brick wall. I think the photo was shot on the stage of The Bitter End, the now-legendary folk club/coffeehouse in the heart of Greenwich Village. That was the album with “If I Had a Hammer,” which became a Number One hit, as well as other songs that rang through my head for years thereafter (and often still do): “500 Miles,” “This Train,” “If I Had My Way,” “Cruel War,” “Lemon Tree” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Peter, Paul and Mary brought a kind of clean-cut accessibility to an often-grungy, intimidating folk scene. Their melodic beauty gave a much-needed softness to important songs by Bob Dylan (like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”) that literally helped put Dylan over the top, despite his own odd, nasal, talk/sing voice. Their clear political courage and well-developed social conscience, sans stridency, helped bring many into the counter-culture fold. And as the years passed and their albums mounted, they symbolized radical social change in a very pleasing package.
When I learned of Mary Travers’s death from cancer at the age of 72 yesterday, I felt as if a dear friend had died and that a vital link in my chain to the past had been broken. Rest in peace, Sweet Mary. Thank you for the years of beautiful music, and for helping to shape my life.