Mary Travers vs. Joan Baez & Laura Nyro

May 28, 2022 • 2:15 pm

I’ve often touted my favorite singers and songwriters on this site, with the best singers (vocal quality) being Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, but the best singer/songwriters being Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell.

Reader Gary wrote me arguing that I’d overlooked one person:

While I share your taste in female singers from your (our) heyday—Joan Baez, Karen Carpenter, Barbara Streisand, et al., one we tend to overlook is Mary Travers, partly because her voice was often subordinated to those of Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey. One of the few songs that showcases her amazing voice is “500 miles,” which I find even more powerful than Joan Baez’ version.

Of course I had to listen. I’ve listened my whole life to Travers, but she rarely sang solo on what I heard: it was always “Peter, Paul and Mary”. Even in the trio it was clear that she had a beautiful and powerful voice, but I’d never put her in the pantheon of great vocalists.

Well, here she is taking the lead in the classic “500 Miles”. I thought it was an older song, but appears to have been written by American songwriter Hedy West in 1961.  Have a listen to Travers’ version below.  I’ve put one by Baez below that.

There’s no denying that that is a great recording of a great song. For comparison a live version by Baez:

Travers certainly has more power in Travers’s voice, and the rendition is more powerful, if less lyrical. I’d give Travers the edge in this song, but I had trouble finding other solos by Travers to judge (one is below). I’ll still maintain that Baez has a better voice overall—and I’m aware that this is subjective! But there are dozens of Baez songs I could use to showcase her voice. Perhaps it’s a pity that Travers sang most often in a trio.

Here’s Travers on the Mama Cass Show singing one of my favorite songs: “And When I Die.” It was written (when she was 17!) and originally performed by Laura Nyro, but popularized in an inferior cover by Blood, Sweat & Tears. Travers turns it into a pop ballad:

And Nyro’s recording from “The First Songs” album of 1966:

Here there’s no comparison. Travers’s version is competent but to me lacks feeling (as well as the power in Nyro’s voice). It’s more like a pop song than a cri de coeur. The bouncy arrangement of Travers’s version doesn’t help things, either.

Nyro’s version, in contrast, is a masterpiece, as are many of her songs. That is why, though she died young, I rank Nyro along with Joni Mitchell as the best women singer/songwriters of our era.

28 thoughts on “Mary Travers vs. Joan Baez & Laura Nyro

  1. Great performance by Ms. Travers.

    Another great female vocalist first recognized as part of a group was Mama Cass — especially her singing on the old standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” (The way I heard the story, Michelle Phillips — whose dad had hung around in Mexico with the tune’s co-composer, Fabian Andre, when she was a kid — sat down at the piano one day, essentially out of boredom, and taught the group the song. Cass started humming along, and by the time they were done, they knew they had something outta sight on their hands.):

  2. Best female vocalist or female singer/songwriter claims are a surefire way to get people’s attention, mine included. Karen Carpenter is near the top of the list for female vocalist. Her beautiful alto was pure, smooth, and deeply expressive. Joan Baez is also a great talent, but her strong vibrato can sometimes overpower.

    I totally agree that Cass Elliot is a candidate. A beautiful voice which, like Karen Carpenter’s, went silent way too soon.

    1. You people? Which people? All of us-we’re all ignorant of Sandy Denny. I in fact have listened to her and featured her here. She wrote some good songs (the bet of which is “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”), but she’s not in the class of the others.

      Why don’t you do a website search before you start insinuating that we’re ignorant of someone?

      1. It’s all personal preference, but I’d take Sandy Denny or Jacqui McShee of Pentangle over Joan Baez. Maybe it’s because I was born on the other side of the pond.

        1. Sorry for the bad choice of words, I meant those of you who haven’t heard her. Agora Sorry, my bad.
          Anyways, in my opinion Sandy Denny is a much talented composer than Joan Baez, Mary Travers or even Laura Nyro (mind again, personal opinion). And, as a singer, I prefer her also, even to Joni Mitchell.
          Nyro is a very good singer, but her music doesn’t mean that much to me. And her voice annoys me.
          Finally, my absolute fav has to be Ella Fitzgerald!

      2. If we’re going to talk mainly about singer-songwriters, I’d suggest Kate Wolf, who though relatively short lived had her songs played by many well known artists. These songs include “Here in California”, “Love Still Remains”, “Across the Great Divide”, “Unfinished Life”, “Green Eyes” and “Give Yourself to Love”.

  3. My top five, in no particular order: Cass Elliott, Barbra Streisand, Mary Travers, Karen Carpenter, and Judith Durham of the Seekers

  4. I’d like to add Cynthia Gooding. Most of her recordings date to the early ‘60s or before and tend to be old British Isles ballads or foreign songs in one of the 7 or 8 languages she was fluent in. They’re mostly early early Electra or Folkways recordings. She had an amazing range from soprano to tenor and was part towards the end of her time of that Dylan, Baez group in the village.

  5. “Singer/songwriter” to me means you have to do both. I agree that Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro are phenomenal singers and songwriters both. Most of the others here are primarily singers. Baez has written some good songs, but she is primarily a performer, like Carpenter and Streisand.

    The only two other female singer/songwriters that come close to Mitchell and Nyro (that I can think of offhand) are Lucinda Williams and, my personal favorite, Rickie Lee Jones.

    1. Joni stands apart IMHO. Blue is a masterpiece in singing/songwriting. Lucinda comes close. Her Car Wheels On a Gravel Road is as good as it gets, and I can listen to her singing Lafayette (Happy Woman Blues) all night long driving down a southern road. Nyro is more a singer than a songwriter, and a unique stylist no doubt!

      And back to Lucinda, this gets me every time

      1. I agree; Blue is as good as it gets. But I can listen to other MItchell songs and still be impressed all over again. Her “second-string” songs (such as “Just Like This Train” off of Court and Spark) are better than most others’ most accomplished songs.

        Nyro’s amazing vocals may seem to overshadow her songwriting ability, but she wrote many, many masterpieces, such as Stoney End, Save the Country, Time and Love, Sweet Blindness, etc.

        1. Laura Nyro is wonderful, and wrote some great songs, but Joni Mitchell wrote more great songs than Joan Baez and Laura Nyro put together. I think she also was a more original musician than either of them. That’s why I agree with AG that Joni Mitchell stands apart.

  6. I’m glad reader Gary prompted this post! I adored PP&M and especially Mary Travers. I thought her voice was beautiful, and it remained so as she got older, but a little deeper and huskier. I was lucky to see them near Chicago shortly before Mary died of leukemia.

    A good example of Mary singing solo is the song Follow Me. It was on her first solo album, Mary, from 1971. (The song was written by John Denver and his version is nice as well.)

  7. I saw Peter Paul and Mary sing “500 miles” live at the Kerrville Folk Festival en Texas about twenty-fiveyears ago . I was with my girlfriend for the last time before I went on a yearlong trip to Costa Rica. Under the circumstances it was a very poignant song. They also sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane” which was even more emotional for us. Unforgettable. Sadly I cannot remember if Mary Travers sang solo in either of these. But they were beautiful songs.

  8. Really interesting to read these comparisons of female singers/songwriters. I fit into the age of Baez and Streisand, and enjoyed replaying some vinyls of them recently. Now I’m encouraged to listen to some of the songs cited here.
    However, a couple of New Year’s Eves ago I heard a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” by Sissel Kyrkjebø and I was blown away. Sissel is a performer/stylist, and the voice is exquisite. The website had a passing note about her back in February 2021.
    I would also like to have a similar review of favorite tenors and sopranos from the world of opera. If I missed it, please clue me in.

  9. I would add Judith Durham of The Seekers to the list of great female singers. Here she is singing “Danny Boy” solo.

    1. As a songwriter, absolutely. As a singer, well, it’s a matter of taste, and for me she’s adequate but not great.

  10. Sandy Denny, Sandy Denny!
    Also, Linda Thompson- not a perfect voice but a very expressive one, much like her husband at the time, Richard Thompson.

    Not a singer/songwriter per se, but an excellent vocalist none the less, was Debby Harry during her best years with Blondie.
    She might easily be overlooked because of Blondie’s pop/new wave style.

  11. Whilst I agree with Jerry about Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, I would recommend Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span to the assembled company. Take a listen to The Weaver and the Factory Maid. The double (or is it triple) tracking harmonies at the end are worth waiting for.

Leave a Reply