Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Mary Travers

The name Peter, Paul and Mary had biblical vibes — Jesus' two chief disciples and mother — and there was an apostolic sweetness to this trio, which sang of brother- and sisterhood, of lemon tress 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, bangs and a supple, powerful voice. That was Mary Travers.

Travers, who grew up near the folkie ferment of Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park, was performing with her friends Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey when they were spotted by tyro entrepreneur Albert Grossman. He changed Noel's name to Paul and signed them to Warner Bros. Records. The group's first album hit No. 1. Their versions of Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" became progressive anthems and Top 10 hits. Their covers of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" introduced the songs of another Grossman client, Bob Dylan, to the mass a.m. radio audience. Yarrow co-wrote Peter, Paul and Mary's biggest hit, the kids' song (or peyote parable) "Puff (The Magic Dragon)."

The trio's celebrity waned by the end of the '60s, but they kept on singing for nearly half a century, in concert and on CDs. Later generations know their songs as staples of glee clubs and summer-camp sing-alongs. Nobody, though, could approach those ballads with the alto fervor and whiplash blond mane of Peter and Paul's beloved Mary.

— Richard Corliss