Brand building through storytelling

When Mary Travers rang the bell of freedom

Alg Peter Paul And MaryFor days now I’ve been hearing a familiar old song in my head. Pounding guitar, three young voices in harmony. They’re letting it rip—the hope, the exuberance, the conviction that a new age of equality was about to transform their nation and the world. A woman’s  voice soars above the others. “It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of free-eedom!” sings Mary Travers, band mate of Peter and Paul. On Wednesday she died of leukemia, age 72.

I was 13 when Peter, Paul and Mary’s first album, featuring “If I Had a Hammer,” vaulted onto Billboard’s Top Ten and stayed there for close to a year. It eventually sold more than 2 million copies, one of which I bought for a dollar for joining the Columbia Record Club. Since my dollar also covered several other albums, the actual price was more like a quarter—a deal that had me quitting and rejoining the record club all through my penurious teens. I never would have paid full price for PP&M, as they were known. I disdained them as slick and bouncy crowd pleasers, even as I hummed along. They didn’t have the fiery indignation of Bob Dylan, or the barefoot purity of my idol, Joan Baez, whose every ballad seemed a lament for humankind and who looked as if she didn’t own a lipstick.

Mary, in particular, aroused my suspicions. I had the chubby misfit’s distrust of the shapely, desirable and gorgeous. Which Mary undoubtedly was, a dead ringer for May Britt with her skinny, Jackie-esque dresses and gleaming blonde hair (I assumed she had bleached it). I had her pegged as a former cheerleader who felt entitled to men’s desire and would bask forever in its glow.

I didn’t know then that Albert Grossman, who managed the group (and Dylan) had seen Mary as “a sex object for the college male.” (That’s why Peter and Paul did all the talking onstage.) But the truth is, if I had known, I’d have blamed Mary. Back then it seemed a woman could either be a babe or a brain—never both.

I forgot all about Mary Travers until the news of her death shook my memories like the chips in a kaleidoscope. Then I began to wonder who she really was. I was ready to meet a different Mary—and online, I found her. A teenage folkie, a regular at sing-alongs in Washington Square Park (so much for the pom-pommed cheerleader of my imaginings). A tireless activist who spoke up for Jews in the Soviet Union, blacks in apartheid-era South Africa, enemies of the state in El Salvador and homeless women and children in her home city, New York. A mother, wife and grandmother, a poet and gardener.

She had a quirky wit. In a 10-year-old interview with The New York Times, she recalled meeting band mate Noel Paul Stookey when he was “working as half singer, half comedian, half master of ceremonies. I realize that’s three halves. I didn’t pass math.”

She had an ear for the revelatory insight. Case in point: these words from her mother, who wrote children’s books and held a management job: “Be careful of compromise, Mary. There’s a fine line between compromise and accomplice.”

She had that voice—full-throated, brave and joyous. It’s because of Mary’s voice that I cared enough to go looking for the mind and the heart. Here she is on YouTube with Peter and Paul, cutting loose with “If I Had a Hammer,” proving you don’t have to be dour to say no to injustice. You can have the time of your life.

Click here to read my obituary for another inspiring woman, Dr. Jerri Nielsen—author, adventurer, healer.


Posted by Rona

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