Mary Travers Sings
December 28, 2009
A few days ago I wandered into the Internet searching for something I can’t remember and is anyway irrelevant since nameless subjects flowed into each other forming a serendipitous road that led to a 1963 photo of Mary Travers singing beside a video link to “If I Had a Hammer.” I’d heard the studio version of the song many times on radio in the 1960s but only rarely since. As one quickly conquered and still captivated by the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, I was only mildly curious when clicking to reacquaint myself with this President Kennedy-era folk hit by Peter, Paul, and Mary. I may have been unlucky. Mary’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival blew me into fantasy land from which I won’t be able to entirely escape until early January when I return to my modest stage, teaching English to dozens of appreciative adults who’ll turn my thoughts outward.
How did Mary Travers enchant me from a 1963 night? Imagine a leading lady at her most beautiful, a social activist at her most dynamic, a great vocalist at the pinnacle. All coalesce when Peter, Paul, and Mary return for their encore. Tall, angular Paul Stookey is on the left and short Peter Yarrow stands to the right. Both men are goateed and armed with acoustic guitars. In the center, framed by two large microphones, like bull horns connected by a head, stands blonde Mary. From the first words, “If I had a hammer,” her angelic voice soars, and as she sings “I’d hammer in the morning” and “hammer in the evening” and “hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,” the power of her words and her presence grows, and in perfect harmony with Peter and Paul she promises, “If I had a bell, I’d ring it in the morning…I’d ring it in the evening…All over this land.”
About a minute in, Mary is possessed, shaking her blonde mane as she declares, “If I had a song….I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out a warning…All over this land.” Releasing words through a large and sensuous mouth, she pounds and caresses listeners through the climax, “It’s the hammer of justice, It’s the bell of freedom, It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land.”
Thousands in the audience must have wanted to meet Mary Travers after this performance, to feel her energy a foot away, and millions around the nation and world feel the same listening to the group’s many classic songs, and are saddened she died in September after several years battling leukemia. She was seventy-two.
Editorial note: Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “If I Had a Hammer” at the 1963 “March on Washington” civil rights rally before more than two hundred thousand people. Mary said she was close to Martin Luther King as he delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, and that King had earlier held her three-year old daughter on his lap. Words and music to “If I Had a Hammer” were written by Lee Hay and Pete Seeger.