FROM THE JUDGE'S CHAMBERS: Proud Mary

By Judge William C. Whitbeck

In the turbulent 60s, when I came of age, the first stop for many of us who joined, voluntarily or otherwise, the United States Army was Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was a barren, foreboding place—“Little Korea” to those who experienced it—containing a sprawling hospital and elaborate, if starkly functional, training facilities. We passed through the “reception center” and were “processed,” examined, poked, prodded, and shouted at, tested, documented, and inoculated. Our heads were shaved and we were properly outfitted to serve our country. Then the Army commenced its attempts at indoctrination.
The first step was a solemn ceremony at the beginning of the rite of passage known as basic training. Bellowing drill instructors marched us through the morning rain in ragged columns to an amphitheater where we stood at attention as Ft. Leonard Wood’s commanding general welcomed us to his world, braying away at some length. Just as I was beginning to understand how it was possible to sleep while standing up, he finished up whatever it was he was saying, the lights went down, and a short patriotic film began to play on a huge curved screen behind his lectern. It opened with waving wheat fields, snow-capped mountains, roaring rivers, quiet forests, golden valleys, and ribbons of highways. And then the distinctive, recorded voices of Peter, Paul, and Mary swung into “This Land Is Your Land,” complete with orchestral accompaniment.
There was, needless to say, a ripple of suppressed laughter in the ranks. Most of us knew who Peter, Paul, and Mary were and we also knew that they were not only wonderfully lyrical folk singers but also outspokenly anti-war. And at least some of us knew that Woody Guthrie originally wrote his great anthem as a protest song. The irony of the juxtaposition of those singers and that song with the beginning of a concentrated course in the art and science of war may have been entirely lost upon the Army, but it was certainly not lost upon us.
That scene came vividly to mind several months ago as I watched a documentary on the varied lives and careers of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Throughout, Peter and Paul were talented, affable, and only mildly interesting. But at the center of the film, as she always was onstage, was Mary. In the early footage, when she was young, she is simply stunning, tall and proud, broad-shouldered, high cheekbones, slightly slanted eyes, long straight blond hair snapping emphatically, fist clenching as she belted out songs of racial equality (“If I Had A Hammer”), of the sorrow of parting (“Leavin’ On A Jet Plane”), of fantasy (“Puff The Magic Dragon”), and, most strongly, of protest (“Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A Changin’”).
And, of course, the times did change and so did Mary. The camera is unsparing and it shows her aging and growing heavier. Her face becomes lined, her cheeks puffy. When she sings a lullaby to her granddaughter, her voice is mellower but it has considerably less of the range and soaring purity of her earlier years. Toward the end of the film, obviously ill, she remains seated at a recording session, facing an overhead microphone, as the group sings, together again.
In truth, Peter and Paul are balding and diffident and Mary doesn’t look much like Mary and the harmony is a little ragged. But Mary still puts every ounce of her energy into the performance, leaning into the microphone, fist clenching on the table, shorter, grayer hair still snapping authoritatively as she hammers the songs home to an unseen audience. She died of leukemia in September of 2009, not long after the film was completed.
And so, to Mary Travers. You made our day that morning at Ft. Leonard Wood. And the music you made remains with a whole generation, recorded, archived, filmed, and fondly remembered. R.I.P.
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Judge William C. Whitbeck is one of 28 judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals. A Kalamazoo native, he is a graduate of the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and of the University of Michigan Law School. He served as chief judge of the Court of Appeals from January, 2002 to January, 2008. He is the past chairperson of the Michigan Historical Commission, a fellow of the Michigan and American Bar Foundations, and a member of the Michigan Law Revision Commission. In 2007, he won the State Bar of Michigan’s short-story competition with “In the Market,” a story of bootlegging and murder set in Prohibition-era Michigan. He has also completed one novel and is hard at work on a second. He and his wife Stephanie live in a completely renovated 130-year-old home in downtown Lansing. He can be reached at JudgeWhitbeck@AOL.com.

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