[NOTE: As usual, things are goin’ on, so I’m a little late with my Vocalist of the Month for May. I intended it to be Jerry Butler and I got most of the piece written, but I’m still an organized thought or two away from finishing it, so I’m going to cheat a little and use this as an excuse to post my obituary for Mary Travers, which Rock and Rap Confidential was kind enough to distribute on the net in the wake of her passing. The piece has been slightly modified to sharpen a phrase or two but, from where I stand, what I said then, regarding either Mary or the world, isn’t any less true now–except that the “draconian powers” I mention below have indeed been “assumed” by Democrats and Republicans alike, and it will almost certainly take a replay of the sixties, which we are almost certainly not up for, to assume them back. Goodbye us.]
In the days leading up to the Iraq war nothing made that modern media invention–the conscience-stricken hawk–quite as queasy as the spectre of the “Peter, Paul and Mary liberal” turning the new adventure into “another Viet Nam.”
That kind of insight was, of course, less than brilliant on infinite levels, but there was some justice in the basic underlying unease: the special relationship between music and politics that’s now called to mind by the catch-all phrase “the sixties” was not, after all, just some weird accident.
The stark, unsettling contradictions that boiled to the surface in that generation have been wallowing in the American psyche since the beginning and are with us still, while the notion that musicians and other artists should confront them is, if not quite that old, at least far, far older than the recording industry.
By contrast, a reality where this very confrontation could produce gold records–and the powerful, insidious, ear-worm relevance in modern American life that this generally implies–was entirely modern and called forth very specifically by three earnest folkies who, as if to prove history really does have a sense of humor, were assembled by a quasi-corporate process not all that different from the ones that later produced the Monkees and the Back Street Boys.
Partly for those reasons, the group was something of a punching bag among the hipper-than-thou left–particularly that part of it which gave up on the dream long before Peter, Paul or Mary did–even before their massive success began to haunt bigots and mad bombers alike.
At least some of that was envy, but for art to work as politics the art has to come first and P,P&M had two elements of genius. The first was the magical “other” that is created when the members of any great harmony group blend their voices.
The second was Mary Travers.
It was Travers who gave the group’s sleek sound the gravitas it needed to become a dividing line and a cultural force that went far beyond selling records. A lot of what Peter, Paul and Mary did–children’s songs, stale stage-patter, tiresome renditions of “true” folk songs by way of Merry Olde England–was innocuous or worse and can safely be consigned to the nostalgia bin if not the dust bin.
What’s left are a number of fine performances that include a couple of dozen diamond-pure sides that did what art very, very rarely does–changed things.
Nearly every one of those sides featured Mary Travers as either lead or de facto soloist.
It was her voice that put Bob Dylan on the charts for the first time (not scraping the charts, incidentally, but “Blowin’ In The Wind” all the way to #2); her voice that brought Pete Seeger back to the top ten after nearly a decade in blacklisted exile–not with Weavers-style balladry but with a political anthem; her voice wailing on the key line in Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” that makes it sound even now like something college kids really would call forth as naturally as breathing when they were being beaten with night-sticks and tossed into paddy wagons at the “liberal” Democratic Convention in 1968.
The paraphrased poetry of “the whole world is watching” was Dylan’s but it was almost certainly Travers who Middle America heard when the fragment echoed across evening news newscasts or turned up in quotes in the morning newspapers, just as it was effectively Travers, almost alone, who first put “protest” music into the proverbial million living rooms where Martin Luther King might as well have been the antichrist.
It wasn’t for nothing that Civil Rights paragon Ossie Davis–as righteous a defender as African-American culture will ever have–called her white-bread folk group “the movement set to music.”
All of that would make her one of the most important voices of the century but she could be even better.
“500 Miles” was recorded in 1962 and, with the tumult still largely in front of her, Travers used that completely artificial confection as a vehicle for collapsing time. Standing on the cusp of a cultural earthquake that would not have been entirely possible without her, she made a commercial folk song sound as if it had always existed and always would, as if everything that was about to happen had already been and gone and she was the only one left to speak of it. Much like the sixties themselves, her version can make you smile behind the eyes or rip your heart out–can be steeped in as much hope or damnation as a listener chooses.
And where “500 Miles” was a pure abstraction–a reach for something that could be grasped but not quite held–“Leaving on a Jet Plane” was utterly prosaic. Travers simply took John Denver’s best song–a fine, if conventional take on that most jealously guarded male prerogative, i.e., the freedom to come and go and have the little woman wait for you to make up your mind–and turned it inside out.
What was left was possibly the strangest hit record of the entire rock and roll era. At once thoroughly radical and profoundly reassuring, recorded just as the women’s movement was taking off, it made no grand statements in the manner of “Respect” or “I Am Woman,” or even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” but instead simply took for granted everything genuinely useful such a movement might achieve (all the more remarkable since Travers had recorded it in 1966–the same year as the brassy “Boots” and well before the others. Where others proclaimed, Travers simply made the most powerful assumption of all. That the right to make the most profound decisions in a relationship was no more than her–or anyone’s–just due. She called special attention to nothing–and missed nothing. The freedom and attendant responsibility that lay behind her bold assumptions got exactly the weight they deserved and no more, lessons that have been missed by generations of male rock critics and elite “feminist” scholars alike, but were likely not lost on the wave of female singer-songwriters (Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, et al) who were about to leave their own deep mark.
It was perhaps appropriate for “Jet Plane” to hit number one in the last month of a decade synonymous with tumult. It seems at least possible that after a deluge of assassination and war and riot, the culture simply took that highly symbolic occasion to draw a deep breath and reach back for some sense of itself, for some reminder of the bedrock that would be waiting when the brick and mortar stopped flying. If cultures can do such things–and if ours did such a thing at that moment–it is both supremely ironic and completely unsurprising that it was Travers’ voice (on a by then three-year-old album track) we reached for.
The critic Ralph Gleason once famously called Peter, Paul and Mary “two rabbis and a hooker,” and to be honest that’s one of the funniest things any critic has ever said. But the real joke is that it was the hooker–not the rabbis or the critic–who turned out to have the biblical voice.
Before her, the great voices of American protest music remained in the underground or on the sidelines. Before her, if a “folk” group had a really big hit it was “Good Night Irene” or “Tom Dooley” or, “Michael” (as in row the boat gently and safely ashore). Before her, if Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” it could scrape the charts for a week before being banned (and effectively ending the singer’s substantial career as a hit-maker). Before her, there was no way Woody Guthrie singing “Deportee” or Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” or, for that matter, Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” could get anywhere near a chart.
After her, there was no way “Turn, Turn, Turn,” or “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son,” or “Ohio,” or “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” or “Born In the U.S.A.” or “The World Is a Ghetto,” or “What’s Going On” or “Fight the Power” could miss.
As we head into an age when the party of “limited” government (which, laughably, still goes by the name Republican) has laid the groundwork for an assumption of draconian federal powers which the old House Un-American Activities Committee that hounded Pete Seeger would never have dreamed possible, the American music charts are, in most ways, as free of pointed, topical relevance as they were in 1961 and every year prior. These days even so-called “hardcore” rappers and punks confine their protests to their albums. Few others bother with even that much.
I’d like to think that the moment is always right for some new version of Mary Travers to stick a fingernail in the side of today’s newer, tougher version of plastic culture and slit a seam that will allow for a new blast of fresh air.
I’ll keep on hoping for it, but I won’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, be holding my breath.
Truth is, the blonde chick in Peter, Paul and Mary has gone to her reward and I have a funny feeling they only made one of her.
Mary Travers “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (Live on Television, 1982 Kingston Trio and Friends Reunion Special)