Bob Dylan is a prodigal talent. However, that wasn’t always clear from the start. His eponymous debut album only sold an inconsiderable 5,000 copies within its first year on sale, and Mary Travers played an understated role in the tide turning on his side.
When Travers was two years old, her family moved from Kentucky to Greenwich Village, where the budding singer would later fall in love with the folk music scene, sparking her journey into the arts. In 11th grade, she decided to turn her back on education and devote everything to music by joining the Song Swappers.
Fast forward a couple of years to 1955, and Travers got her first taste of notable success when the Song Swappers delivered backing vocals on a series of albums by the political singer-songwriter Pete Seeger. However, unfortunately, that would be all the notable triumph the group would enjoy during their tenure.
Six years later, Travers caught wind about a new opportunity in a trio that Albert Grossman was curating, which she successfully auditioned for that later became Peter, Paul & Mary. The folk revival was underway. Warner Brothers soon signed the group, and their self-titled debut went to number one just a year after their formation.
In contrast, Bob Dylan had signed with Columbia Records, but his work failed to trouble the charts. Interestingly, Grossman also managed the singer, and he masterminded Peter, Paul & Mary, making ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ the lead single on their third album, In The Wind.
Dylan’s sophomore record was only released a month before the trio made their version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ a single, and it was their take that first gained traction. Now, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is regarded as a seminal body of work, but, in 1963, the masses still hadn’t realised its magnificence.
It wasn’t until Peter, Paul & Mary’s had a hit with his song that people began to take notice of the original. Their cover created a snowball effect, as their fans then discovered more about Dylan and got lost in his genius. Additionally, the next Peter, Paul & Mary single that followed ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ was another Dylan cover. ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ gave the band another top ten hit, as well as stirring up even more intrigue around the song’s originator.
For Dylan, the interest surrounding him didn’t sink in until after his noteworthy performance at the Newport Folk Festival. His breakthrough set coincided with the trio’s cover peaking at number two in the chart, and the timing was perfect. The singer even called in a favour from his friend, Joan Baez, who joined him on-stage for a duet of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, which confirmed his coronation.
Years later, his friend, the late radio personality Bob Fass, remembered how Dylan’s life changed in an instant following that weekend. He allegedly told Fass: “Suddenly I just can’t walk around without a disguise. I used to walk around and go wherever I wanted. But now it’s gotten very weird. People follow me into the men’s room just so they can say that they saw me pee”.
Following his memorable performance, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan climbed the charts steadily until September, when it eventually peaked at 22.
There were few more prominent artists than Peter, Paul & Mary around that time in the States, and their covers immeasurably helped spread the word of Greenwich Village’s prodigal son. His legacy is impeccable, but it could have been potentially irrecognisable if one more early album was a commercial failure and if Travers didn’t assert him onto the map.