Obituary: Mary Travers, 72; Member of Folk Group Peter, Paul and Mary

Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey performed in 2004 for the Democratic National Convention in Boston, one of several reunions.
Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey performed in 2004 for the Democratic National Convention in Boston, one of several reunions. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)
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Associated Press
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers, one-third of the hugely popular 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died Sept. 16 at a hospital near her Connecticut home, the group's publicist said. Travers was 72 and had battled leukemia for several years.

Bandmate Peter Yarrow said that in her final months, Travers handled her declining health with bravery and generosity, showing love to friends and family "with great dignity and without restraint."

"It was, as Mary always was, honest and completely authentic," he said. "That's the way she sang, too; honestly and with complete authenticity."

Noel Paul Stookey, the trio's other member, praised Travers for her activism, "especially in her defense of the defenseless."

Yarrow, Stookey and Travers mingled their music with liberal politics, singing songs that resonated in the American mainstream while staying true to their beliefs. Their version of "If I Had a Hammer" became an anthem for racial equality, as did Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," which they performed at the August 1963 March on Washington.

The group collected five Grammy Awards for their harmonies on songs that included "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and "Puff (The Magic Dragon)." At one point in 1963, three of their albums were in the top six Billboard best-selling LPs as they became the biggest stars of the folk revival movement.

It was heady stuff for a trio that had formed in the early 1960s in New York City's Greenwich Village, running through simple tunes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb." They debuted at the Bitter End in 1961, and their beatnik look -- a tall blonde flanked by a pair of goateed guitarists -- was a part of their initial appeal.

The group's first album came out in 1962 and immediately scored hits with their versions of "If I Had a Hammer" and "Lemon Tree." The former won them Grammys for best folk recording and best performance by a vocal group.

Their next album, "Moving," included the hit tale of innocence lost, "Puff (The Magic Dragon)," which reached No. 2 on the charts and generated since-discounted reports that it was an ode to marijuana.

The trio's third album, "In the Wind," featured three songs by the 22-year-old Bob Dylan. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Blowin' in the Wind" reached the top 10, bringing Dylan's material to a massive audience; the latter shipped 300,000 copies during one two-week period.

In a 1966 interview, Travers said the trio worked well together because they respected one another.

"There has to be a certain amount of love just in order for you to survive together," she said. "I think a lot of groups have gone down the tubes because they were not able to relate to one another."

With the advent of the Beatles and Dylan's switch to electric guitar, the folk boom disappeared. Travers expressed disdain for folk-rock, telling the Chicago Daily News in 1966 that "it's so badly written. . . . When the fad changed from folk to rock, they didn't take along any good writers."

But the trio continued to be successful, scoring a hit in 1967 with the tongue-in-cheek single "I Dig Rock and Roll Music," a gentle parody of the Mamas and the Papas, and two years later with the John Denver-penned "Leaving on a Jet Plane." They also continued to be boosters for young songwriters, recording numbers written by then-little-known Gordon Lightfoot and Laura Nyro.

In 1969, the group earned its final Grammy for "Peter, Paul and Mommy," which won for best children's album. The trio disbanded in 1971, launching solo careers -- Travers released five albums -- that never achieved the heights of their collaborations.

Over the years, they enjoyed several reunions. They remained politically active as well, performing at the 1995 anniversary of the Kent State University shootings and performing for California strawberry pickers.

Travers underwent a successful bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia and returned to performing.

"It was like a miracle," she said in 2006. "What's incredible is someone has given your life back."

But by mid-2009, Yarrow told WTOP (103.5 FM) that her condition had worsened again and he thought she would no longer be able to perform.

Mary Allin Travers was born on Nov. 9, 1936 in Louisville, the daughter of journalists who moved the family to Manhattan's bohemian Greenwich Village. She became enamored with folk performers such as the Weavers, and was soon performing with Pete Seeger, a founding member of that group who lived in the same building as the Travers family.

With a group called the Song Swappers, Travers backed Seeger on one album and two shows at Carnegie Hall. She also appeared (as one of a group of folk singers) in a short-lived 1958 Broadway show called "The Next President," starring comedian Mort Sahl.

It wasn't until she met up with Yarrow and Stookey that Travers would taste success on her own.

Travers, who lived in Redding, Conn., is survived by her husband, Ethan Robbins, and daughters, Alicia and Erika.

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