Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary Remembered

Mary’s Music

A little piece of my fabric is missing. It was woven tightly, but now it has come unraveled. It was a piece that I didn’t even think twice about, because it has been there for more than 40 years. It was integral. I learned that Mary Travers died today.

My dad played guitar. When he was a teenager, he and two other guys played on WRR AM in Dallas. He tells me that the grandparents who raised him in the country out in Navarro County were afraid that he might become a musician. He did for one summer. Then, he went to business college in Dallas. He became a successful businessman, but he passed the love guitars and music on to me. He still has a couple. I have his first guitar, the one that he played on the air.

He was influenced by “Pappy” Lee O’Daniel and the Light Crust Dough Boys, predecessors of Bob Wills. They played the songs of the day in the early 1930s. We might even those songs “folk songs” today. Some of them were. Others were, of course, the songs that people loved to hear, the precursors to Texas Swing.

My dad and his band would set up on a flatbed trailer and draw a crowd in the small downs of Navarro County. Once the crowd was warmed up, politicians would speak. It sounds like something we should try again in this era. Perhaps it would result in more civil discourse. I digress.

I need to ask him how his band drew the attention of WRR Radio. The radio station paid them for their gasoline and oil to drive up from Corsicana and play for 15-minutes or so every Saturday. I don’t think that they got much more money than that.

It was my dad who taught me my first chords on the guitar and songs that went with them. “Down in the Valley” can be played with only two chords, although I rearranged it in later years. “You Are My Sunshine” has three chords.

He and another man who used to have a band played their music often on Sunday afternoons after church and lunch in Dallas. I watched, sang, and learned. It wasn’t long before I was playing along with them.

The Kingston Trio and Simon and Garfunkel got my attention first in the folk music explosion of the 1960s, but it was Peter, Paul, and Mary who captured the era before the Beatles. Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey were the musicians. Mary’s only instrument was her voice. They were never afraid to sing about civil rights and injustice. For that generation, they made it OK to bring a rational discussion of a whole list of subjects to the table.

Further, their music was approachable. High school kids could pick up a guitar and learn the songs and harmonies in a matter of hours. I’d read the album jackets and learn who wrote the music. I’d follow those leads to the record store to discover the source of those lyrics and melodies. Those lyrics and melodies, picking patterns, and themes led me to write my own stuff.

Peter, Paul, and Mary played Bass Concert Hall at UT some 20 years ago. I bought two tickets, one for me and one for my son. He’d grown up listening to the records and listening to my versions. He needed to see them in person.

Now, we may hear Peter Yarrow. He is a sometimes Austin resident and a regular at the Kerrville Folk Festival. When I was on the air in the 1980s, I did a story with Yarrow on the occasion of this 50th birthday at the folk festival. We may also hear Noel Paul Stookey. Yarrow brought him to the festival several times too. As I recall, Mary Travers came once, but she won’t come again.

I still have the vinyl. I have CDs and MP3s. I have my guitars. I don’t have Mary. That piece of my fabric is missing.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...


I'm up at 2:30am, each morning to check weather, news, and all things that could relate to our morning show. At 43, I can remember Peter, Paul and Mary. I have a "Live" album of theirs and possibly another. As a 5-year-old with my dad's record player, I was able to listen to a world that was otherwise unavailable. My dad flew Hueys in Viet Nam for 2 tours, but he didn't care for the war. There were reasons why he went. Everything from the fervor of serving your country, the thought that we were invincible and the failures in Korea were widely unreported, and we had the technology to take us in to space which surely meant we could flush out some uneducated folk from a jungle. Well, that technology to flush "them" out, was what eventually lead to his death. Agent Orange is "dropping" chopper pilots from that war at a very high rate. They were exposed to higher concentrations of it, and that stuff was blown into the cockpits of choppers, so heavily that people stripping them down, decades later, would also have serious health issues.

I'm by no means a "hippie" or anti-war type, but I miss my Dad. Like you, he played guitar, ya'll probably enjoyed the same musicians from back then and probably would have agreed on many reasons why we shouldn't have been in Viet Nam. The reasons he went, were based on trust in the government and military, a since of pride in everything he did and he also knew it was a very good way to further a career. He loved flying and although was shot down 4 times, kept flying. He knew his fellow troops needed him to do his part.

I respect and love all of those facts about it, and I miss him terribly, and although I was just a little kid with a record player, I enjoyed the same music that you did as a a teenager.

Mary Travers isn't a personal loss, and it's not just simply a loss of a popular musician, but to a degree, it's a silenced voice that once exercised it's right to speak out in dissent, yet do so in a pleasant manner. Manners, respect, civility and many other qualities that members of our society once held, are either long gone or widely missing. There are still many that have these qualities but sadly, they avoid politics. The nastiness of today's politics has kept respectible types from wanting to expose themselves and their families to it.

So where is civility? It's aging, it's dying, it's hiding from the beasts of today's media. Mary Travers contributions to music and society represent that civility even in dissent.

A piece of my childhood returns to remind me of the mortality of us all, and the fragility of a respectful society. We had Mary, now we have Kanye.

Where have all the flowers gone...

Keep up the great blog, Jim.

shawn r.

austinokie said...

It was 1967, I was visiting Baylor as a potential transfer student. A friend from Tulsa invited me to go with her to hear P,P, & M at Marrs McLean gym. That incredibly intimate setting was the beginning of a transformation for me. the next week I heard them in a huge concert hall in Dallas. Amazingly, the effect was the same. Their passion filled the space and the people who heard them. Her voice, her beauty, her humor, the tossing of that hair, that incredible harmony made it okay, attractive even to think beyond the conventional wisdom of childhood.It was their music that carried me along for years. I heard them 6 times over the years and was never, ever disappointed.

I didn't keep the vinyl. I had Mary's solo album for years and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you Mary Travers for the voice and so much more....


WDYC said...

It hit me much the same way.
Celebrity deaths at most usually get an "Aww, that's too bad" from me. However, with Mary Travers' death some part of me is missing now.