I was in elementary school when I first heard Mary Travers sing. By that time, Peter, Paul and Mary had already achieved great commercial success, but they were new to me—and I fell head over in heels in love with Mary’s voice and the passion behind it—not to mention that incredible slinky blond hair.
It wasn’t until quite a few years later that I understood what their music was about and that there was more to the group than great harmonizing and sing-along tunes. Peter, Paul and Mary were authentic folk artists. Their music spoke to the social justice issues of the day. They helped bring protest music to the forefront of American culture. Emerging from the early ‘60s bohemian world of Greenwich Village, they managed to gain enormous mainstream success while being extremely political.
They were with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and they marched with him in Selma, Alabama. They protested the Vietnam War and spoke out for the rights of farm workers. Mary was arrested when she protested against South African apartheid. She once wrote: “Those of us who live in a democracy have a responsibility to be the voice for those whose voices are stilled.”
I saw Peter, Paul and Mary perform at a reunion concert in the 1980s which I attended with some much younger friends. My friends were amused that I knew all the words to Blowin’ in the Wind and that I sang them with passion and tears. I was amazed at that; what kind of person doesn’t know the words to that song?
Okay, so I guess a lot of people don’t know the words any longer. Still, I was saddened when I checked Twitter trending topics the day after Mary’s death. She wasn’t there, but Patrick Swayze was. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; Twitter is a young community, after all, and the 1960s were a long time ago. But there was also more news about the cremation of Patrick Swayze’s body in mainstream news outlets than about Mary’s death. And with all due respect to Mr. Swayze—I liked his movies very much—the mark he left on this world is only of moderate importance. Mary Travers, on the other hand, was the best and most important kind of person—an activist for social justice.
I’ll never be famous and or have a voice like Mary’s (or her hair) but I’m an activist, too, for the most significant social justice cause of this century. I like knowing that Mary and I are alike in the way that really matters. Being an activist, and speaking out for those whose very lives depend on our activism, trumps fame and talent every time.