Thursday, September 17, 2009

My First Big Musical Group

Sure, the guys have suits on, but check out those goatees!

The last of Mary's four solo albums from the 1970s.

It is 1969, or perhaps 1970. I am 15 years old. My musical taste is still unformed. I had a weird period in sixth grade where I listened to the Monkees as well as the Doors and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. (My girlfriends and I used to buy strawberry gum so that we could cut out the strawberry images and paste them all over our notebooks.) But now I'm casting about, looking for a direction.

I have two older sisters with record collections. The oldest wasn't that much of a musical buff--I recall that she enjoyed the Beach Boys. But she's gone off to college. The one nearest to my age likes Barbra Streisand and some of my father's musical soundtracks (that's why to this day I have the scores of Fiddler on the Roof and Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd committed to memory).

It is that flash in time right before Carole King's Tapestry hits. The singer/songwriters have yet to storm the scene. My oldest brother has joined the Marines. I recall the night before he headed off to boot camp. The song played repeatedly on our turntable that night was Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane".

I was drawn by their vocals, and I love the songs on Album 1700. There's "I Dig Rock and Roll Music", a jibe at the popular rock of the day and "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog", a song about an interracial romance. And then there is the haunting "Great Mandela" sung by Peter. I'm attracted to their songs because they seem to be about something. Their politics resonate with the times. I become a fan.

Loving Peter, Paul and Mary leads me directly to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. (I study the record label, and note who's written every song on the disc.) I buy some of their other records, and my love deepens. They are so strident, so authentic--oh, it hit my adolescent heart in the bull's-eye! I sing along to every song, harmonizing with them. I admire Peter and Paul's appearance--how I want to grow a Van Dyke when I'm older, and have an artsy beatnik look! I trust their taste in material completely. Although I can't bear to listen to Bob Dylan, their covers of his songs lead me to the library to read about him, and to try to understand why others think he's so great.

I am crestfallen that shortly after I've developed this love, they break up as a group. Paul goes off to explore religion, and Peter loses his bearings with an indiscretion with a young fan. So I'm thinking I'll never see them. All I have is a program that one of my sister's friends gave me. How sacred this book was to me. Turning its pages over and over as I continued to listen.

Each member pursues a solo career. Their debut albums are all sterling. I go to see them each individually in concert. I love them all for different reasons: Peter, for his amazing songwriting skill and musicianship; Paul, for his silky smooth voice and Bing Crosby-like composure and humor; and Mary, for her impeccable taste in what to sing, and for her completely unique voice. They continue to be my soundtrack into the 1970s.

Disco hits, and their careers quiet down. They decide that it's best to reunite, and I finally get to see my heroes in together in concert later in the decade. My musical tastes are soon to shift dramatically, but in the years that follow I still keep in touch and buy all of their releases.

Peter, Paul, and Mary were always classy, and one of a kind. Several years ago, when I'd learned Mary needed a bone marrow transplant, I sent a handwritten note to her expressing my love for her work. I was so relieved that she survived, and that I could see them one last time together with my wife.

I played Peter, Paul, and Mary to each of my 6th grade classes as they came in today. "It's a sad day for me today, kids," I said, and went on to tell why they are such an indelible and important part of musical history. I played "Don't Laugh at Me" and I could feel tears welling up as I thought about how they always stood behind the underdog. I sang along to "Wayfaring Stranger", feeling the power of its time-honored lyric. Oh, it was a regular hootenany!

"You know, " I said to my classes, "you probably aren't aware that you already know some Peter, Paul, and Mary songs." I invited them to raise their hands if they recognized the choruses I sang to "Puff the Magic Dragon", "If I Had a Hammer", and "Leavin' on a Jet Plane". Scattered hands went up--never a majority, but it was still reassuring to know that some kids would be carrying on. And heck, who knows what impact their brief exposure today might have!

Mary Travers was a wonderful singer and stylist, and I urge you to check out her solo work from the 1970s in which she skillfully bridges the gap between folk and pop music. I'll miss her enormously. She helped me develop my musical taste! God bless her because of all the pleasure she brought into this world!

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