So Long, Mary

Sometimes it seems like several lifetimes ago; others like it was just yesterday. Memorable moments in your life are like that. I was not-quite-in-college; still hanging around, serving as a teaching assistant for a class in “Media in America.” It was a class I helped create the year before, this time “taught” by a famous, hip FM radio disc jockey named Pete Fornatale (who is still a famous, hip FM disk jockey in New York). It was, to the say the least, a somewhat unconvential liberal arts class at a school not known for its liberal arts (being centered more around art/architecture/engineering/computer science/fashion and food).

Pete had prevailed on a number of friends, acquaintenances and contacts in the media “biz” to provide the substance of the class. Among those friends were two musicians and producers named Terry Cashman and Tommy West. Besides being known in their own right as Cashman & West, they were rather more famous for having produced hit records for Jim Croce. Pete called and asked if they would come to Brooklyn to talk to the “kids” about making records and the business of music. Cashman and West said they couldn’t; they were in the middle of producing a solo record for Mary Travers. But they had a better idea:  they said they needed an informal sing-along chorus for one of the songs. Would Pete mind bringing the class to the midtown recording studio? And would the class mind singing while there? Um….yeah, we could do that.

And so about forty of us tromped into the studio. Cashman and West gave everyone a tour of the control room and studio, and demonstrated the process of making multi-track records, playing each individual track to demonstrate. Then they coaxed us in singing the chorus to a song by Jim Dawson called Simple Song. It is just what its title suggests, a simple song accompanied by an irresistible la-la-la-la chorus. But not quite so simple as it might seem when you’re trying to sing backup to Mary Travers (whose part had already been recorded). We sat on the floor of the studio and “rehearsed” and then sang the same parts over and over as Cashman and West “conducted” and rolled tape. (Yes, in those pre-digital days, it was tape!).

While we were recording our part, a television crew crept into the studio. Cashman and West had called some friends at Channel 5 (now the NY Fox station; but then an independent whose 10pm news had a large viewership). Our “media lesson” turned into something more than a studio session. We all had the added thrill of watching ourselves on the news that night.

During the TV taping, Mary Travers walked into the studio. Now, I was then (and remain) a huge fan of Peter, Paul and Mary. I had seen them numerous times in concerts (among the best concerts ever). I had marched with them at anti-war rallies. I had conversed with Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey a couple of time, and had briefly met Mary as well. That day in the studio, Mary was — well Mary. She was almost of another world. But there were a couple of things that struck a discordent note with me. While we were all sitting on the floor (faking) singing for the cameras (not tape rolling), Mary was lip-syncing. I thought that odd. And once the lights were off, instead of staying a chatting with a group of college kids, she vanished as quickly as she had come.

It was only years later that I learned that part of her stage presence was the result of extreme stage fright. I don’t know if faced with 40 college kids was terrifying, or if she was just having a “diva” moment. Her friend and singing partner Noel Paul Stookey writes a bit about Mary’s contradictions in his tribute on her web site. I guess I was not the only one who noticed.

But eventually all was forgiven. That recording of Simple Song (heard on my current podcast) is one that I treasure. It’s a beautiful production of a beautiful, gentle song, made more so by Mary’s nearly perfect voice. It was a voice she lent to so many causes over the years. So many times Peter, Paul and Mary were there, marching with everyone from Dr. Martin Luther King (they played at the 1963 March on Washington) to Nelson Mandella’s triumph in South Africa.

Mary Travers had contracted leukemia a while back, and had been in remission. The disease came back; friends and strangers banded together to find a donor for a bone marrow transplant, which arrested the leukemia. But the rigors of chemo took their toll and Mary died from complications from the treatments. She was 72.

Beyond the slogans, the political and protest songs, Peter, Paul and Mary have created a legacy of wonderful music, including some of the best children’s music and songs, some of the funniest records and some of the most beautiful. Their TV shows will play forever on PBS and will likely be entertaining people for a long time. And, of yeah, they helped make Bob Dylan a household name.

But now there will be no more concerts, no more shows, no more records. Peter and Noel will, no doubt, continue the tradition, but PP&M were always a melding of voices and styles.

So farewell Mary. We’ll miss your presence, your beauty and most of all your voice.