Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The essence of three-part harmony

We bid farewell to Mary Travers Wednesday. She died of leukemia at age 72, and she will be remembered as more than the striking blonde who sang with two goateed balladeers in the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary.

Travers was a singer alright, her rich soprano a key component of the group's distinctive vocal blend. But she was also a social activist, a defender of the defenseless and a guiding spirit in the folk renaissance of the Sixties, when protest songs carried real weight as they soared with the winds of change.

Yet it was an innocent children's song, "Puff'', that many of us growing up at the time learned to sing first, a simple song that taught us the meaning of three-part harmony and the absolute necessity of including a voice like Travers' in the mix. Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, "Puff'' was not a song about drugs. It was just a beautiful song.

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave
So puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave

"Puff,'' a No. 2 hit for the group in 1963, was sandwiched between two Bob Dylan covers that also charted well: "Blowin' in the Wind'' and "Don't Think Twice.'' Imagine, a folk trio that for a shining moment was actually bigger than the emerging Dylan himself.

That was the Greenwich Village scene in the early Sixties. Singers who believed what they sang, and sang what they believed. And nobody was more admired at the time than Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers. Their debut album in 1962, featuring the simplistic "Lemon Tree'' and Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer, stayed on the charts for more than three years.

Simon was just spendid without Garfunkel, and CS&N were absolutely fine before (and after) Y. But it's impossible to imagine Peter & Paul without Mary. Some things are just meant to be.

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