I was 10 when I first saw Peter, Paul & Mary looking out of an album cover with their names chalked on a brick wall. I memorized their features as I listened to their voices. I could not believe so much music came from three singers, two guitars, and a bass. Their harmonies made me feel cradled in sound. They were too cool for me, of course, not to mention older by 15 or 20 years, but I felt they were my people. Why not? I could play all their songs, except for a couple of the bar chords.
I didn't have my own stereo. I wasn't living in my own house. I was staying with extended family, and I was usually in trouble. My slightly older cousin was nuts about some off-key British jerks called the Rolling Stones. We waged undeclared war over the record player. I wished I could break the damn Stones record, but she'd have hunted me down. Instead I waited for a clear coast and soaked up Peter, Paul & Mary when nobody was around.
Later that same alienated adolescent year, I got a ticket to see Peter, Paul & Mary live. I went alone and spent the evening trying to fix every moment in memory. I can still see Peter Yarrow coming onstage with a folded piece of paper. He'd just written a new song, he needed a cheat sheet, we should bear with him. The song was "The Great Mandala," and to be honest, it sort of freaked me out.
Time taught me the value of the Rolling Stones, but I never lost my taste for three-part harmony, and I never stopped loving Peter, Paul & Mary. I grew up and found my way to Greenwich Village, though by then it was 1985 and everybody was listening to Devo. I joined in enormous folk-music parties at my friend Joe's Upper West Side apartment. I ventured out for open-mike night at the folk clubs where Peter, Paul & Mary started. When I sang a song I tried to engage it honestly, as they did. I played for quarters on the streets and sometimes got dollar bills.
At 10, I didn't understand why I was sad to learn that the gorgeous Mary Travers was married to a photographer named Barry Feinstein. Time solved that mystery too. I went on to my own activist career as an editor of The Advocate, the national LGBT newsmagazine.
That's where Peter, Paul & Mary found me. It was March 2004. I was putting together our annual music issue, but I couldn't get my mind on pop stars. George W. Bush had just endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have amended the U.S. Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage or any future discussion thereof. It literally made me sick.
I decided that rather than profiling one music star, we'd contact many stars and ask each to send a statement expressing their feelings about the Federal Marriage Amendment. The response overwhelmed us. First to accept was Itzhak Perlman. Next came Deborah Voigt. Flea, Ice-T, and Pink were among the 40 artists who joined in.
A day or two before we put the issue to bed, I got a call from a publicist I didn't know. She was reaching out on behalf of Peter, Paul & Mary. They'd heard that I was publishing statements about marriage equality. Could I make room to include them?
I realized then that my child's instincts had been right. Peter, Paul & Mary were my people.
Here's the statement they sent me at The Advocate:
Having sung, demonstrated, and participated as activists for the human rights, civil rights, and dignity of all people, we are totally opposed to the Bush administration's proposed constitutional amendment. Let us rather find ways to embrace one another, all different, all special, and all deserving of being accepted as such--without bias, without prejudice, and, most critically, without the deprivation our rights to full and equal participation in our society.
Mary Travers died on Wednesday, at age 72, of complications from leukemia. I'll miss her.