THE NAME MARY COMES FROM THE HEBREW LANGUAGE and is said to mean bitter, beloved, wished-for child, or of the sea. It is the name of the Blessed Virgin and was bestowed liberally on female children until the 1960s.
In those years, if you called out the name in certain areas of town or in certain school playgrounds you would be swamped with responses. It’s a lovely name, I think now, resonant and timeless.
For girls named Mary growing up in my generation, though, the name lacked cool. There were admirable women in all walks of life who had the name but they didn’t cut much ice with those of us who wanted to be Beat Girls.
The Marys who appeared in song were celebrated for virtues such as fidelity, forgiveness and steadfastness, forever waiting and weeping. In 1959, the Everly Brothers sang their plaintive Take A Message To Mary, in which a frontier boy who has ended up in jail is too ashamed to let his sweetheart know he’s turned bad. He wants her to think he’s gone away to sea, that he’s off to see the world, that he’s anywhere other than locked up.
In 1964, Marty Robbins sang about a Devil Woman who lured him away from – yes, you’ve got it, Mary. She forgives him and takes him back and they resume their happy life in their shack by the sea. Oh, how the mantle of Nice But Boring settled on us like a birthright.
We had to wait until the 1970s, then a couple of lines changed all that for ever.
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways,
Like a vision she dances across the porch.
Mary is the opener and the co-star of Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road, an integral part of that glorious, cinematic anthem which encapsulates the desires and frustrations of small-town America and the dreams of leaving which perhaps never go away but which haunt us most intensely in our restless youth.
Mary is in every layer of the song. She is placed on the cusp of the world of porches and screen doors and summer dresses and graduation gowns, the world of the unknown, of movement and danger and taking a chance with this boy who can’t offer redemption.
Does she go for it? The imagery of the song is so strong that you know she must. You see her in the car, the wind blowing back her hair, on the two lanes that are the road to anywhere out of this town full of losers. She embraces the urgency, becomes part of the darkness of burnt-out Chevrolets, leaving the ghosts of the boys she sent away to journey to the promised land.
In contrast, Mary is the girl in Springsteen’s sad and tender The River, a hymn to lost dreams and lives without hope. In just a few verses we are drawn into the world of these teenage lovers. They live in a valley in world which seems stable and secure, with kids being brought up to behave properly and do what their parents did before them.
When Mary becomes pregnant, their rushed wedding is described in the bleakest of terms – no wedding-day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers. The emotional bleakness is mirrored in the economic climate as work dries up and the future looks uncertain. He is haunted by memories of their carefree and joyous days driving down to the river in his brother’s car, where they would hold each other tight and their love was all they needed.
Now the river has run dry, like their lives, but they are united in their awareness and their longing for what was. Mary is an equal in this haunting, painful story.
And you know what? She even sneaks, by implication, into other girls’ songs. In Sherry Darling there’s a shout-out to ‘all the girls down at Sacred Heart’. At least half of them must be called Mary.
So at his concerts, when Bruce pulls a girl on stage to dance, I hope she is called Mary. Actually, I hope she will be me.