50 Years of Song: Peter Yarrow Is Going Strong
By Joel Barrett
Some fans may consider him the “first name” in folk music. That may be debatable, but he is definitely the first name of the iconic folk group Peter, Paul and Mary — the trio that carried a generation through the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, and the birth of the environmental movement.
Peter Yarrow, now 76, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, had a hand in organizing some of the biggest anti-war protests in 1969, and even sang at the October march for climate change action in New York City. He’s not slowing down. Saturday night he will bring his songs and stories to the Regent Theatre in Arlington, VA. It will be a different kind of event: part concert, part conversation.
“It’s Peter, Paul and Mary material because that is what’s really close to my heart,” Yarrow said. “But it’s not just singing the songs. It’s connecting the dots for people historically about what that era was like, what the songs were like and then bringing it into the present to let them know how this music is still a force for making the world a better place. Whether it’s in the climate movement, or the attempt to return the Black Hills (to native Americans) or the peace movement in Israel.”
Just as when the trio sang his songs back in 1962, Yarrow’s songs these days are still a vehicle to promote change, healing and making the world a better place.
The Work Goes On
“The work goes on and the people who come to concerts get that sense of that history,” Yarrow said. “And for the folks who grew up with it, it’s kind of revalidating and confirmational, but to young people, it’s an eye-opener and a heart-opener, too.”
When he picks up his guitar and starts to sing, the goal today, just as in the ’60s, is to aid in that opening of the heart. “One of the real antidotes to not only cynicism but to mean-spiritedness, is music that can — when it experienced in a group, people singing together — really transcend those divides and people wake up to the feeling that ‘my goodness, we are connected,’ “ Yarrow said. “Or we have at least the capacity to be connected and that is why that is such a powerful tool. It takes it out of the realm of bias, preconception and logic and it goes right to the heart.”
He sings for the young, the innocent, the untainted. “Another important part,” he said, “is a matter of educating young people before they buy into the greed and mean-spiritedness, the bullying in society. And that is my main work now.”
Today, he spends much of his efforts promoting Operation Respect, which he founded in 1999. It’s a manifestation of his beliefs, his dreams, and his goal to make the world a better place. Simply put, Operation Respect promotes a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each other’s differences, civility, and conflict resolution in all kinds of schools. It’s now used in one form or another in 22,000 schools worldwide, in far-flung places such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bermuda, Croatia, South Africa, Egypt, Argentina and Canada. And, of course, in the United States.
More than 10 million children, and about a third of all elementary and middle schools in America, have been touched by Operation Respect. Yarrow said he believes that the only way to achieve peace in this world is ultimately through the children. “I am of the belief that — first of all — peace cannot be viewed as simply the cessation of hostilities between nations,” he said. “Peace is a kind of a state of being that reinforces the momentum to go to that place where that result occurs. We live in little oases of antipathy or caring, togetherness or fragmentation, peace or violence. If we can just nurture those moments in schools for kids, adult lives or in a concert sharing these songs, then we are living that peace internally. And that has a huge effect. We have to not just say ‘I can’t do anything about it — I can’t make the world more peaceful’ because that’s absurd. It’s not something that can happen all at once.”
Achieving peace, like anything, takes time. He pointed to the slow acceptance and legalization of gay marriage as an example of the changes that are possible.
“That happened in the grassroots, in the hearts and souls of people who gradually accepted (it),” he said. “There wasn’t an overnight law that was passed. We went from a place of insensitivity and persecution, humiliation and marginalization of human beings to slowly people got it into their hearts ‘these are real human beings — they are not menaces, they are not devils.”
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court backing off gay marriage bans, he said, and even the Pope has lightened his stance on gays. “That would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Inconceivable.”
“People ask, ‘Are you hopeful or cynical?’ Just look at what happened in Central Park. I performed seven times that day because there was not central place, there were many places,” Yarrow said.” That’s the model, we have to think of our lives as being the test tube in which we can either hatch these pools or moments that are caring, loving and peaceful and let that grow. We just have to let them become connected to others elsewhere who are doing it and then one day there will be an end to the laws that are oppressive to gays. It will be about peace.”
On the Ground in Newtown
When it comes to the senseless taking of life, innocent life, such as the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT, Yarrow pointed out the problems go much deeper than just the instruments of killing used. While he supports the elimination of high-powered weapons, mega-magazine clips, and the proliferation of handguns in America, the weapons and their use are just the symptom of a wider problem.
“This is not just an issue of guns,” he said. “The really big question is how do we reclaim the heart of this nation so we can care about each other and the norm, the cultural norm, is one of mutual support and caring? So that kids growing up don’t feel this tug to emulate what they see on television, which is cruelty, cynicism in the extreme and treatment of one by another with humiliation.
“What we need to do mostly in this country, and this will not only eliminate gun violence but other kinds of violence, whether it’s with a pen knife or cyberbullying with the click of a key, is to regenerate the sense of community that we once had and is now been seriously frayed. This is a big issue and the resolution of the gun issue relates to the larger issue of how we treat each other.”
Yarrow, in fact, played a integral part in a PBS special called “Concert for Newtown” and sang onstage with Francine Wheeler, the mother of 6-year-old gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza. He admitted that forgiveness does not come easy in America and in western cultures. “What we miss is we don’t say (we’re sorry),” he said. “We’re not in the process where forgiveness is offered or requested. The cultural model in the United States is that we don’t say ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s seen as an act of weakness to say I’m sorry, to make apologies and make amends. It’s not something we do as a country, our government doesn’t mobilize us to do that.
“What’s needed is a process of restorative justice, of reconciliation, of saying ‘I take responsibility for this,’ of saying ‘I am going to do what I can to not let this continue.’ So we won’t go into Iraq, so we won’t torture people in Guantanamo. So how do you forgive? By thinking about ‘us instead of me’ and by not letting your insecurity and your narcissism and ego overtake your humanity.”
The Yarrow File
- Formed: Peter, Paul and Mary with Noel “Paul” Stookey and the late Mary Travers in 1960.
- Wrote or co-wrote: “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Day is Done,” “Light One Candle” and “The Great Mandala”
- Recorded: About three dozen albums with Peter, Paul and Mary, solo and with his daughter, Bethany, and cellist Rufus Cappadocia. Millions and millions of copies sold. A new Peter, Paul and Mary album will be released soon. Called “Discovered,” it draws on recordings found in Stookey’s possession.
- Books: Peter Yarrow Songbook Series: “Sleepytime Songs,” “Let’s Sing Together! and Favorite Folk Songs,” “Puff, The Magic Dragon,” “Day Is Done.” On Charlesbridge: “The Marvelous Toy,” “The Night Before Christmas,” “Over The Rainbow,” “When You Wish Upon A Star” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” A new book, “Peter, Paul and Mary: Fifty Years of Music and Life” is scheduled for release this month.
- Film and TV: Produced the 1969 cult classic “You Are What You Eat,” and three CBS TV specials based on “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” earning Emmy nominations.
- Causes: Equal rights, peace, the environment, gender equality, homelessness, hospice care, education and free medical care for children whose families can’t afford critically needed neurosurgery.
- Little known facts: Co-wrote “Torn Between Two Lovers,” a No. 1 hit for Mary McGregor, an avid alpine skier, married Eugene McCarthy’s niece, Mary, in 1969.