1960s folk trio mixed music with liberal politics
Mary Travers, the willowy blonde vocalist of the early-’60s pop-folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, died Wednesday after a long battle with leukemia at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. She was 72.
With her male partners Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, Travers racked up 19 pop hits between Peter, Paul & Mary’s recording debut in 1962 and 1969.
The group’s biggest urban folk singles came in 1963: the whimsical “Puff the Magic Dragon” (No. 2) and covers of Bob Dylan’s generational anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” (No. 2) and his rueful romantic ballad “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (No. 9).
The trio, who shared Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, was among the first to cover the singer-songwriter’s defining material. They would later take such Dylan songs as “When the Ship Comes In” and “Too Much of Nothing” to the pop charts.
Peter, Paul & Mary were among the biggest folk acts to appear in the wake of the Kingston Trio’s late-’50s and early-’60s supremacy. At one point in 1963, three of their albums were in the top six on the national album charts. They released three multi-platinum or platinum albums and six gold albums on Warner Bros. Records.
They were also popular with the Recording Academy, picking up five Grammy Awards over the course of their career.
Like many of the folk acts of their time, they were outspoken politically, and often appeared on behalf of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
They were also staple at the Newport Folk Festival, the annual nexus of the urban folk revival.
Peter, Paul & Mary formed in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ’60s. Travers had moved there with her family from her hometown of Louisville, Ky., where she was born on Nov. 9, 1936.
She was soon immersed in the Village folk scene. Among the musicians she performed with was Pete Seeger, the banjo-playing former member of the Weavers, a group that would serve as a model for her future act.
She backed Seeger on record and at Carnegie Hall as a member of the Song Swappers, and also appeared with the acerbic topical comic Mort Sahl in the 1958 Broadway show “The Next President.”
Travers debuted the trio with Stookey and Yarrow, who was managed by Grossman, at the Bitter End in New York in 1961.
New York Times critic Robert Shelton wrote, “Sex appeal as a keystone for a folk-song group was the idea of the group’s manager, Albert B. Grossman, who searched for months for ‘the girl’ until he decided on Miss Travers.”
The group – with two dark, guitar-playing, goateed men who flanked the fair-haired Travers on stage – was equally striking visually and musically, and they were swiftly signed to Warner Bros.
Their first top 10 hit was “If I Had a Hammer,” a 1962 version of Seeger’s “The Hammer Song.” “Blowin’ in the Wind” moved them into the top five, and collected Grammys for best pop vocal group and best folk record. They performed the latter song at the 1963 March On Washington.
As the decade wore on, they made few concessions to electric folk-rock, though they did reach the top 10 with 1967’s nod to the Mama’s and the Papa’s, “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.”
Peter, Paul & Mary won their last Grammy for the children’s album “Peter, Paul & Mommy” in 1969. They disbanded in 1971 to begin solo careers; Travers cut six solo records that never reached the heights of the group’s collaborative efforts.
Over the years they enjoyed several reunions, including a performance at a 1978 anti-nuclear benefit organized by Yarrow and a 35th anniversary album, “Lifelines,” with fellow folkies Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk and Seeger. A boxed set of their music was released by Rhino Records in 2004.
They remained politically active as well, performing at the 1995 anniversary of the Kent State shootings and performing for California strawberry pickers.
Travers had undergone a successful bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia and was able to return to performing after that.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.