I’m not doing heavy blogging this week, but I would be remiss to not note the passing of Mary Travers, of the popular folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. She was (still is) one of my mother’s heroes and I know Mom will be saddened to learn of her death. I hope Mom will take some comfort from my taking the time to eulogize her here.
First and foremost, she was an artist, and an artist is best remembered by her art. Travers wrote some absolutely touching songs that are part of our collective cultural legacy, most notably for me “Lemon Tree,” and “Puff The Magic Dragon,” one of the first songs I can remember listening to as a child and feeling both very happy and, in the last verse, very sad at the same time — eliciting that powerful mix of emotions that characterizes very good art of all sorts. Although Peter, Paul and Mary performed the most popular version of the song, “Blowin’ In The Wind” was written by Bob Dylan. They also turned the traditional folk song “If I Had A Hammer” into an anthem for racial equality.
While Travers was an outspoken activist for racial equality and a variety of other liberal political causes of her day, she truly left her mark on American culture rather than American politics. Her best work focused not on the political but on the deeply personal, and Mary Travers knew how to tap in to universal experiences:
Now the time has come to leave you,
One more time please let me kiss you.
Then close your eyes, and I’ll be on my way.
Dream about the days to come,
When I won’t have to leave alone,
About the times when I won’t have to say,
Kiss me and smile for me.
Tell me that you’ll wait for me.
Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane.
Don’t know when I’ll be back again,
Oh, babe, I hate to go.
And no, “Puff The Magic Dragon” is not about the (purported) pleasures of smoking marijuana or any other kind of political or cultural subversion — it is plainly and solely about the bittersweet process of growing up and losing innocence, simply told in a melancholy rhyme that wears the discipline of its meter lightly:
A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys,
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more,
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
His head was bent in sorrow, his green scales fell like rain,
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
So Puff the mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.
The musical legacy that she helped create was to at once keep a tradition of American music alive at a time that it was threatened to be swallowed up by more bombastic sounds like the British Invasion and the growth of R&B, and at the same time her music served as a reminder that lyrics and melody are important regardless of the genre. Parodied somewhat in the movie A Mighty Wind, Travers took the actually good-natured ribbing with grace. And why not? Without musicians like Mary Travers and Joni Mitchell having paved the way, we would likely not today have singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant — all of them showing us beauty and emotion through the quiet power of their poetic, soulful music.
Travers had been fighting leukemia for many years and according to the report, met her death with minimal pain, maximum dignity, surrounded by her family and friends, and she left the world on as close to her own terms as anyone fighting cancer could do so. We all should be so fortunate when our times come. She was seventy-two years of age, wrote songs taught to nearly every young guitar student, and hers stands out as a distinctive American life. She will be missed but, like all artists who touch greatness, a part of her will be resurrected whenever anyone performs or even plays her works.