Mary Travers: the music will endure

October 19, 2009

Mary Travers, one-third of the hugely popular and influential 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died on September 16 after treatment for leukaemia. She was 72.

She joined forces with goateed guitarists Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey in 1961 and was, with Joan Baez, the most prominent female folk music artist of the time.

Peter, Paul and Mary helped write the soundtrack for the great social movements of that tumultuous decade — for civil rights, women's rights, ending the Vietnam War. Their songs inspired millions of people to spread a message of peace and justice, and sparked awareness of the need for social and political change.

Travers' soulful alto voice was instrumental in the group's success. They won five Grammy Awards and had 12 top 40 Billboard hits in the 1960s. The trio took folk music into the mainstream, at a time when the songs of the Weavers, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were relatively unknown. Their hit versions of "If I Had a Hammer" and Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" became anthems for civil rights and racial equality.

They marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama, and performed at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when King made his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Travers was arrested in 1984 while protesting against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Except for a recess in the 1970s, the trio performed and toured for almost 50 years until earlier this year. They toured Australia several times and held many concerts to support human and civil rights, unionists, peace, justice, minority rights, environmental and other causes.

Peter, Paul and Mary's music defined a generation. Their enduring messages have brought joy and inspiration to people of different cultures on every continent. Countless singers and musicians were inspired to start their musical journeys by Travers. They helped boost the careers of many young songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot and Laura Nyro.

For those who didn't experience those decades it's difficult to appreciate that their music was influential in inspiring people to get involved in social and political causes.

Without the new media forms we now have, music then played a much bigger role in people's lives and in framing social change and attitudes.

It's fair to say Travers was the very heart, soul, and spirit of the group and what they represented. She brought an edginess, urgency and tenderness to their performances and recordings, which included much material that was non-political.

Millions on every continent who never attended a Peter, Paul and Mary concert felt that she was a part of their family, as the group's music and its messages were passed down from one generation to the next.

Her passing represents a farewell to much more than just a gifted artist and a musical legend. Another piece of an era has been lost, but her music will ensure that she will never be forgotten.

We must now pick up the torch that Mary left for us. We must continue to spread the enduring messages of peace, equality and justice. We need to share the spirit of her songs and life with others everywhere. We must if we want this planet to survive.

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