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Remembering Mary Travers

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Mary Travers, the glamorous blond who sang into the middle microphone with folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died September 16 at 72 after a long battle with leukemia.  

Born in 1936, Mary Travers was two years old when her parents moved the family from Kentucky to Greenwich Village in New York City.  By the time she was a teenager, Mary was a full-fledged member of the 1950s Village folk scene, though, at the time, she said music was just a hobby, and she had no plans to sing professionally.

That changed in 1961, when Mary met Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman.  Grossman had decided to put together a folk supergroup to rival the chart-topping Kingston Trio.  He introduced Travers to Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey.

The story of how the group was formed caused many fellow folk singers to brand Peter, Paul and Mary as "too commercial," and not "authentic", but Mary Travers always defended the group's sound and founding, saying they made the music accessible to everyone.

There is no dispute that the trio made folk music popular.  Their first album, "Peter, Paul and Mary," reached Number One shortly after its March 1962 release, and remained at the top of the charts for seven weeks.  The album contained two hit singles:  "If I Had A Hammer"; and "Lemon Tree."

"Peter, Paul and Mary everyone loved," said singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters. "And it's not that it was 'watered down' at all.  That's not why it worked.  I'm not exactly sure why it worked, except that Mary's voice was just a thing of beauty. It was a classically-beautiful voice."

Peters took up the guitar at age 7, and Peter, Paul and Mary songs were the first she learned to play.  But it wasn't just Mary Traver's voice that attracted Gretchen. The harmony singing was equally important.  

"That was a great education, just picking apart who sang what on the albums," she said. "Because sometimes she actually sang lower than one of the guys, she would sometimes sing lower than Peter.  And you'd have to kind of weed out who's singing what in the harmonies. It was not simple, simple stuff, but it was beautiful."

While the group's music proved commercially successful, the group did not play it safe when it came to politics.  Like Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, Mary Travers was quite outspoken in her support of civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war movement.  Peter, Paul and Mary performed at the historic 1963 March on Washington, and also took part in the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

After the group disbanded in 1970, Mary Travers continued to perform at political events around the world. The trio reunited in 1978, intending to perform just one show at a benefit to oppose nuclear power.  It was such a success that they continued to perform as a trio until Mary Travers retired in May of this year.

It's no exaggeration to say that Mary Travers and the trio of Peter, Paul and Mary took folk music from the coffeehouse to the mainstream, and helped spread a message of peace and harmony around the world.  Their recordings also proved that folk music could be commercially successful.

Peter, Paul and Mary's music won five Grammy Awards and scored six Top Ten hits, eight gold and five platinum albums.  They also introduced millions to the music of Bob Dylan, and turned "Blowin' In The Wind" into an anthem of the 1960s' protest movement.

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