Folk-music legend Peter Yarrow has shared music of conscience for five decades
Fifty years ago this year, Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had A Hammer” during the momentous March on Washington before an estimated 300,000 people, the same crowd who later that day witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech firsthand.
When Peter Yarrow sings those same songs this week at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, he’s not doing it solely for the sake of nostalgia.
“I’m not just reminiscing about what once was,” Yarrow, one-third of the trio that helped usher in the folk-music renaissance of the ’60s, said in a recent phone interview. “I’m asserting the primacy and importance of music of this sort in today’s world. It’s my mission.”
This mission has kept the musician and activist occupied for five decades and counting. He continues to perform occasionally with Paul Stookey, and Peter, Paul and Mary ceased only with the 2009 cancer death of Mary Travers. In addition to touring regularly, Yarrow has developed some of his songs into successful children’s books, and runs a nonprofit organization to stop emotional and physical abuse of children called Operation Respect.
Yarrow explained his philosophy that music—particularly what he calls “music of conscience”—is an essential tool toward building a better world, and a sorely underutilized one today.
“I know very few artists who are dedicated to making music to move the hearts of people to create a more accepting, loving, peaceful society. There was a time when that was the dominant musical form, but that’s changed.
“The almighty dollar has altered what music can do for us at a time when the world needs this type of music,” Yarrow said. “Instead, [record companies] put out what sells, which is not just mediocre, but often nihilistic.”
Yarrow’s musical activity continues to be driven by his humanitarian work and political activism. In 2011, he played rallies supporting workers rights and collective bargaining in Madison, Wis. Last month, he organized A Family Concert of Caring, Healing and Togetherness for the community of Newtown, Conn., in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.
Yarrow’s latest children’s book is an adaptation of the 1967 Peter, Paul and Mary song “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog.” Like the Yarrow-penned “Puff, the Magic Dragon”—which, depending on who you ask, is a nonsensical children’s song, a heartbreaking tale of innocence lost, or an ode to marijuana—“Blue Frog” is multi-layered and, Yarrow emphasized, still relevant.
“It’s about a girl who falls in love with a big blue frog who is under 6 feet tall, wears glasses and has a Ph.D., but the neighbors are disapproving because they say property values will go right down if the family next door is blue. So it’s really a song—a whimsical song—about civil rights and the civil-rights movement.
“In today’s world, we have a black president, which was not even possible to think about in those days, but we also have other big blue frogs in our midst,” he said. “We have gays, lesbians, the LGBT community. We have immigration and acceptance of people who were not born here, and we still have racism.”
Yarrow explained why much of his life’s work has been directed toward, or at least accessible to, children: “You can’t change the hearts of adults very much,” he said. “They have their preconceptions. They’ll cling to their animosities, biases and prejudices. But we can bring children up so they don’t reiterate that.
“A lot of the emotional and physical violence toward children can’t be resolved without addressing the fact adults themselves are role modeling this behavior,” he continued, expressing his contempt for, among other things, the behavior prevalent on reality television shows. “They treat each other with horrifying disrespect.
“We want to see the restoration of humanity in our country.”
So Yarrow continues to do his part, sharing songs to build a better world. And, he said, he hopes we all sing along: “When [audiences] all sing together, that’s the joyous thing for me.”