Celebrity deaths are always big news, and none this year were bigger than Michael Jackson, but I find that all the attention spent on his passing, along with this upcoming movie about his final days, have overshadowed the loss of some other very noteworthy people. Sure we still remember that this was the year we lost Patrick Swayze, John Hughes, Billy Mays, and Farrah Fawcett, whose passing was most overshadowed my Michael Jackson, since they both happened to pass on the same day. There was the strange death of David Carradine, and the sudden passing of Natasha Richardson, along with the quiet passing of such great stars as Walter Cronkite, Karl Malden, Bea Arthur, Dom Deluise, Ed McMahon, James Whitmore, and Ricardo Montalban to name just a few. A special mention also for the queen of the blues and one of the best performers I was ever honored to see, Koko Taylor. In one of her last performances here in Chicago, I watch her get escorted on stage by two handsome young men barely able to walk. But the second they let go of her, the music started and her voice echoed through the room and she gave one hell of a performance. It only lasted about 45 minutes, and it ended with her signature rendition of Hound Dog, but she gave it her all and received a well deserved standing ovation. Then the two young men returned to escort her back off the stage.
I know I have missed some others, but one passing in particular seemed to be missed all together. I don’t even recall any mention of it in the mainstream media. Sadly, I only came across this news because of an AARP newsletter I seem to receive by mistake. On September 16 of this year, Mary Travers died at the age of 72 after a lengthy battle with Leukemia. She was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother, and by all accounts she was respected and loved by all who knew her. And more people knew of her, than I assume knew her name. If you are of a similar age to me, Mary Travers was a part of your childhood that you will long remember. So if you are one of those people asking yourself, “Who is Mary Travers?” I can sum it up in just four words.
Puff, the Magic Dragon
Mary Travers was of course, the “Mary” in the classic folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. Her straight long blond hair and square-cut bangs pretty much set the look for the late 60’s folk crowd, and she along with her partners Peter Yarrow and Noel “Paul” Stookey became one of the last folk singing groups to reach success on the pop charts. Much of the trio’s popularity came from cover versions of other classic or well-known folk songs by writers such as Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Their cover of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind reached #2 on the pop charts, and Mary’s voice brought the song and its message to an audience that was not willing to put up with Dylan’s nasal tones. And their version of the Pete Seeger song If I Had a Hammer became a civil rights anthem, and they performed it at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. The trio’s only number one hit came at the very end of their career in 1969 with the John Denver penned song Leaving on a Jet Plane. The group broke up a year later in 1970 to pursue solo projects.
But for me and many people of my generation, Puff, the Magic Dragon is still the song that we most associate with Peter, Paul and Mary. It was a staple of our childhood, and often it was included in our grade school music classes. For those who need a little refreshing, Puff was a mythical dragon who lived by an unnamed sea, but could often be seen frolicking in the autumn mist in the far off land of Honah Lee. (If that didn’t just get a tune stuck in your head, then you are either too young or dead.) The song tells of the adventures Puff has with his human friend, a boy named Jackie Paper. They are respected and revered by both kings and pirates alike as they travel the land in a boat with billowed sails. The song also tells the story of childhood lost, as Jackie outgrows his dragon friend and no longer returns to that part of his imagination where Puff still lives, and it is the adult world that quiets the once mighty dragon.
Although many have speculated that the song was actually an overt reference to drugs and smoking marijuana, where Jackie was actually the rolling paper used as a vessel to take a drag or “puff” on the magic substance, the singers have always contended that this was not the case. For me, the song is a childhood memory of sitting at my grandmother’s house and my Uncle Pete singing the song to all of his nieces and nephews. He played the guitar and we would all join in on the chorus. It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate what the song was really about. That as adults we tend to lose our dragons as we get caught up in the real world, and our adult lives, and then Jackie Paper is no more. We don’t take the time to enjoy the simple things like the imagination of a child, or to hum the tune of a long forgotten song. As I now watch my own kids grow up, I want to fight against that grey night, and hold onto the innocents as long as possible. Teach them that the wonder of their youth doesn’t need to sadly slip into a cave to never be seen again. That youth doesn’t have to be wasted on the young, and that we can play along that cherry lane for as long as we wish.
Tonight, try and be brave and let your dragon out of it’s cave, and in the memory of Mary Travers and your own childhood, why not frolic in that autumn mist. Find a little happiness of your own, in a land called Honah Lee