Folk's Beloved Princess: Mary Travers Dies at 72

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Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers and Paul Stookey in 1964

Their name had biblical vibes — Jesus' mother and his two chief disciples — and there was an apostolic sweetness to this trio, singing of brother- and sisterhood, of lemon trees and magic dragons. In the folk boom of the 1960s, no group had more success than Peter, Paul and Mary, in part because of their dramatic look: two serious gents in jackets and matching goatees and, between them, a strong-featured young woman with long blond hair in bangs and a supple, powerful voice. That was Mary Travers, who died Sept. 16 at 72 in Danbury, Conn., after a long bout with leukemia.

Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1936, Mary Allin Travers moved as a baby with her writer parents to New York City's Greenwich Village, where she would join the blooming local folk scene in nearby Washington Square Park. In her teens, as a member of the Song Swappers, she sang backup for Pete Seeger and appeared on Broadway in the short-lived folk musical The Next President. She also earned money babysitting; one of her charges was an infant English aristocrat, the fifth Baron Haden-Guest, who as Christopher Guest would direct and star in the 2003 film A Mighty Wind, an affectionate parody of the folk-boom years.

For pop consumers in the late '50s, folk music was the Kingston Trio, with their frat-boy élan and their repertoire purloined from Seeger and other traditionalists. Then one man suggested that the genre could be bigger. "The American public is like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be kissed awake by the prince of folk music," said Albert Grossman, a Chicago entrepreneur, at the first Newport Folk Festival, in 1959. Bob Dylan, whose manager Grossman became in 1962, may have been that prince, but the raspy-voiced kid needed troubadours to sell his message to the masses. Grossman had seen Travers perform with her friends Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey; he took them on, changed Noel's name to Paul and got the group a contract with the new Warner Bros. Records. Peter, Paul and Mary's self-titled first album (1962) went to No. 1 and stayed in the Top 20 for two years.

But singles were the thriving format back then, and that's where PP&M shone. They scored six Top 10 hits and placed seven others in the top 40. Travers' strong lead on "Lemon Tree," a Brazilian folk song for which Will Holt had written new lyrics, gave them their first hit. It was followed by Seeger and Lee Hays' "If I Had a Hammer." The group changed the phrase "all my brothers" to the more ecumenical "my brothers and my sisters" and helped make the number an anthem for the decade's civil-rights movement. Their rendition was a highlight of the 1963 March on Washington; another was Martin Luther King Jr.'s delivery of his "I Have a Dream" speech. Unlike the studiously apolitical Kingston Trio, PP&M attached their celebrity to progressive causes — and would continue to do so over the 47-year life of the group.

Inevitably, one Grossman act inspired the other: PP&M recorded "Blowin' in the Wind," the first Bob Dylan song to become a hit, and lent a mellow rue to his "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," thus spurring a small industry of Dylan covers and easing the singer-songwriter's emergence as his own wiliest interpreter. They had hits with new compositions (John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane") and reworked folk tunes (Hedy West's take on "500 Miles"). Other groups had recorded these songs, but PP&M sold them best, with artfully simple musical settings — and the striking girl in the middle.

Like many folk groups, they found their material by scouring old songbooks and listening attentively to obscure albums on the Folkways and Vanguard labels. One Vanguard trio, the Greenbriar Boys, expressed resentment when PP&M used their arrangement of the English ballad "Stewball" for yet another hit single. But Seeger said he was pleased by PP&M's version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," which he had adapted from a Cossack lyric (and to which folk singer Joe Hickerson added the final verses). Voilà! One more antiwar ballad to insinuate its thesis into the minds of the vast AM-radio audience.

For all their scrupulous borrowings, PP&M's most memorable hit came from within the group. When Yarrow was at Cornell, a fellow undergraduate, future indie filmmaker Lenny Lipton, had written a poem in the spirit of Ogden Nash; Yarrow set it to music, and a few years later the trio recorded "Puff the Magic Dragon." This children's song, with its fanciful friendship and lilting chorus, would dominate the Top 40 and be sung in summer camp forever after. To the cognoscenti, this was a drug song in pop-music code: Puff, drag-on, "little Jackie Paper." Hipsters began referring to the group as Peyote, Pot & Maryjuana — though Yarrow consistently denied the hallucinogenic connection. He was even more adamant in condemning Paul Shanklin's 2007 anti-Obama burlesque, Barack the Magic Negro, which Yarrow called "shocking and saddening in the extreme."

Times, they change, in pop music. Dylan went electric; the folk songbook was nearly depleted by raids from the myriad groups that sprung up to grab the gelt; and Peter, Paul and Mary disbanded in the early '70s to pursue solo careers. At the end of the decade the group reunited, "after their rejuvenating years of personal re-definition" (their website's words). Though they kept recording new material, they were essentially an oldies act, appearing with other antique pop-folkies like the Highwaymen and the Brothers Four at concerts that PBS liked to air in prime time during every pledge week. Travers, by then on her fourth husband, had put on quite a few pounds, but she never lost the potent alto that blended so becomingly with Yarrow and Stookey's voices.

After a leukemia diagnosis in 2005, she underwent a seemingly successful bone-marrow transplant and tried to keep performing. She finally succumbed from complications after chemotherapy treatments. The flower of Peter, Paul and Mary has gone to graveyards, everyone, but her voice lives inside three generations of music lovers.