Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers, RIP

I remember the person who taught me the song, "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt."

Her name was Joanne Coombs, and she was my 2nd- and 3rd-grade teacher. I recall her being a tall, thin, cheerful woman with very short blond hair. The only other thing I recall clearly about my two years in her classroom is that she frequently sang or played records to us. She was not the music teacher, but she obviously believed that music was an effective way to engage young students, and in my case, anyway, it certainly was true.

One record she played a lot was the eponymous debut album from Peter, Paul and Mary, which was released in 1962 and so at that time must have been about eight years old. But it was new to me and its effect on me was powerful. Anyone from late boomer to current toddler has had the experience of listening to PPM's sweet and highly accessible versions of classic folk tunes and having those words and melodies indelibly embedded in one's consciousness. It may have have happened in school or at camp, in the living room, the back seat of your parents' car, on TV or in concert. But that music, which has been timeless and ubiquitous for nigh on half a century, has reached us and whether we be fans of it, indifferent to it, or antipathetic towards it, that music likely will still be introduced and embraced by many generations to come.

But today, one-third of the source of that music has been stilled forever. Mary Travers, 72, succumbed to complications from treatment for leukemia, a disease she had been fighting successfully for much of the last five years. She was hired as much for her looks as for her voice (the liner notes of that first album describes the group as "Two bearded prophets of the folk idiom in league with a bright, young blonde-and-a-half"), yet it was that deep, powerful voice that could be delicate, vulnerable, and feminine on one song, and strong, accusing, and impassioned on the next, that was a key ingredient in their uniquely effective vocal blend.

Her two signature songs, "500 Miles" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," would not have been nearly as effective if sung by crystalline female folk voices like those of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, or Judy Collins. These songs denote a sadness and weariness that demand an unprimped voice, one that is both soulful and authentic. When one sings from the heart, the voice should not come out from that perilous journey unscathed.

It's easy to minimize PPM's contribution to folk music. There is some truth, after all, to reviewer Richie Unterberger's statement on that they were "folk popularizers rather than musical innovators," although Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey have made their own notable contributions to the canon. Still, there is no shame in bringing the works of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, and Fred Neil to larger audiences.

For me, personally, what I most love to do with music that moves me is to share it. And as I am too much a music snob to have allowed a Raffi album in my house when my first daughter was young, I eagerly introduced her to PPM's music and we had great fun singing along with these songs together. Now that she is nearly 13 and listening to the kind of crap that they give Video Music Awards for, she doesn't care to be reminded of the many times we played that first album in the car or watched their 25th anniversary PBS special that I have on VHS. But, as I told her today when I mentioned how sad I was that Mary Travers had died, someday, God willing, she will have a child and she will look around for music she can share with him or her, and it won't be Brittney Spears that she thinks of. It likely will be PPM.

My younger daughter just turned three, and she has already taken to the music to such an extent that she can't go to bed at night without me singing "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Because of this, it is clear that while Mary is gone, Mary's heart and soul and, most of all, her voice, will live on forever in our hearts and our souls, and yes, in our voices as well because music is indeed meant to be shared. And I guess that ultimately was what Mrs. Coombs was teaching me nearly 40 years ago. So thank you, Mrs. Coombs, and thank you, Mary Travers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When you were young, your parents most likely didn't like the music you liked. It must be the same deal in your house with Hannah and Stella.