Sat, 19 Sep 2009 03:36:57 +0000
“Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe…”
Mum just called to tell me that Mary Travers has passed away. I hadn’t thought that she would; I never really think that any of the people I adore and admire will ever die. They should go on and on, like the tides and the starts and all those other constants we never question. They ought to be protected by the mystical forces of Legacy, of Greatness, the power of The Public’s Love ought to wrap around them and keep them forever healthy and safe, so that they can keep giving the world what it needs so desperately!
She wasn’t just a star to me. Not at all like any of the pop stars I sang to when I was small. No, she was something closer to extended family, part of that vast tribe to which, though my mother, I belonged. Folkies. My first family. Some of them, like Tom Pease or Peter & Lou Berryman, really were a part of my life. I didn’t see them often, but when I did we would laugh and joke, and I always imagined they held a special fondness for me. Si Khan called me a ‘very clever girl’ and I beamed with pride. I don’t remember Phil Ochs, but I remember falling asleep to his voice, waking up later in the back of the dancehall, singing ‘Draft Dodger Rag’ to myself over and over.
I never met her – not that I know – but I felt I knew her, in that invisible way one knows aunts and grandmothers from the Home Country. I heard her voice in my mind when I sang her songs, and her harmony line was always my favourite to sing. I wanted to be just like her. When I performed in talent shows, I would raise my hands into the air, just like she did. I would spin in place, laugh out loud, throw my whole body into the music, just like Mary Travers. All my flailing and spinning and passion could never embarrass me, because Mary Travers was the same. She was, more than anyone else, my model for authenticity as a vocalist and performer. She gave me a pressure valve for all the criticism and expectation that various vocal coaches piled atop my head at that time: she offered a way out, a way to do my own thing. Whenever I felt like my voice was too low, my face too ordinary, my style too personal, I would look to Mary Travers.
She wasn’t the prettiest – at least not conventionally – but she glowed when she sang and shone when she smiled, and that was all the pretty she needed. She wasn’t the thinnest, either, and I remember her wearing loose, flowing robes for the Christmas Concert that we watched every year the way other families watched It’s a Wonderful Life. She was perfect, because her imperfect body housed That Voice. That Voice was perhaps the way she helped me the most. When I hit puberty like a brick wall, it shattered my voice. Afterwards it was lower, with a bit of growl, the same power but not a speck of sweetness. Too low, too textured, too grinding and lush to ever take me to the stages as I had planned and dreamed. I could still sing, of course, but I knew I’d never sing onstage. At my last lesson, my vocal coach told me I “could still sing Rock music….” It was her almost-nice way of saying that my voice was no longer good for anything decent, that I might as well ruin it by screaming at crazed hooligans to the backup of thrashing, uncultured guitars.
Yet. Yet there was Mary Travers.
Mary’s life and music told me, in no uncertain terms, that there were other paths into music. She told me that I didn’t have to be skinny and pretty and sing like an angel, as long as I sang with soul. Oh, the soul she had! I had it too, once I got brave enough to look. I found my own voice through her: a voice that was syrupy and slithering, that curled around notes like a jealous snake, wanting to hold every lilting sound too tightly and rough it up a bit. I still held that heartache, but over the years I’ve been searching for a new path into music, carried along by Mary Travers – the woman and the voice. A woman with a voice that was neither delicate nor sweet nor sounded like the tinkling of crystal bells. No, it sounded of life, of striving, of suffering struggle and passion and pain. Her voice is mud puddles and hard rains and broken toys and family and community and laughing at the sky, laughing because even through it all, life is so damn good. It reaches into me and pulls out a deeply-buried thread of emotion.
That’s what That Voice is to me. That’s what Mary Travers is to me, and that’s why I’m sitting here in front of my computer sobbing like a younger me never could. I needed to feel these things, I desperately needed reminding they were there.
Thank you, Mary Travers. It’s been too long, but I’m listening now.