Peter Yarrow continues his mission of music and peace
April 15, 2014
Throughout Peter Yarrow’s career, which spans 54 years, music and social activism has gone hand in hand.
Even from the get-go when he sang with Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers (who passed away in 2009) in the iconic trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow has used his music and influence to shed light on and participate in the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements in the 1960s and the Festival For Peace in 1970.
More recently, Yarrow performed for volunteers who worked on the campaign of President Barack Obama and made appearances with his daughter Bethany at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York’s Liberty Park in 2011.
Yarrow is looking forward to spreading his message of music and peace to Park City when he performs the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, April 18, and Saturday, April 19.
The singer and songwriter said audiences should expect some nostalgia mixed with hope looking forward to the future.
"All my concerts now are virtually career retrospectives," Yarrow told The Park Record during a phone call from his office in New York. "When I sing songs, I don’t want to just sing them, because they all have so much history and meaning, particularly with people who cared about or were part of the movements of which I or the trio were a part.
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"But it’s more than that," he said. "Singing the songs with the audience becomes a recapitulation of those moments, which becomes a very powerful and moving experience for me as well as the people in the audience."
For the show’s first half, Yarrow has selected songs from his catalog that pertain to the issues the world faces today.
"Yes, some of them are historic songs such as ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ during which I ask the audience to sing Mary’s part so we can remember her together," he said. "Others are more contemporary, such as ‘Don’t Laugh at Me,’ which is the anthem of the nonprofit, anti-bullying organization called Operation Respect."
Operation Respect is an educational initiative and program that Yarrow founded 15 years ago.
"After the intermission, when I go to the table in the lobby to meet people and sign autographs, I accept requests for the songs I will sing in the second half of the evening," he said. "I will choose my repertoire from those requests."
Yarrow said he never gets tired of playing his songs, because they have become staples in people’s lives throughout the years.
He did say, however, the success of one song — "Puff the Magic Dragon," written by Yarrow and Leonard Lipton — took him by surprise.
"It was on an album (1963’s "Moving") and picked up by a disc jockey in the Northwest who started playing it," Yarrow remembered. "The radio station held a contest for students to draw Puff, and the staff expected to get maybe 100 or so entries."
More than 5,000 people showed up with their art.
"It was then that everyone realized that something extraordinary was happening with that song," Yarrow said.
Another song’s success that took him aback was "Leaving on a Jet Plane," which was released as B-side of the "House Song" single in 1969.
"For a long time, nothing happened to it," Yarrow said. "It wasn’t originally released as a single, but was, instead, picked by a disc jockey.
"Back in those days, if a disc jockey really liked a song and played it and got a strong response, the record company would consider releasing it as a single," he said. "And that’s what happened."
Then there was Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind."
"We were so passionate about the song and so sure it was right on target that we recorded and released it as a single before the album came out," Yarrow said.
The song rose up the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and peaked at No. 2 in the late summer of 1963, a week before the trio participated in the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
During the gathering at the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, the trio performed "Blowin’ in the Wind" and "If I Had a Hammer."
Throughout the years, Yarrow has expanded his message and activism into classrooms with Operation Respect.
The nonprofit organization’s mission is to "assure each child and youth a respectful, safe and compassionate climate of learning where their academic, social and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule and violence."
Its website address is http://www.operationrespect.org .
"Operation Respect emerged from hearing the song ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ that I heard at the Kerrville Folk Festival many years ago," Yarrow explained. "When I heard it, I knew it was one of those musical anthems that really personified the essence that I wanted to achieve.
"We try to help create a hospitable and caring environment in schools, summer camps and other places where the focus is on the needs of children, thus creating a climate where bullying, ridicule and disrespect would be less likely to occur, or even eradicated," he said. "The diminishing of bullying, ridicule and child-abuse violence, which, unfortunately, is pandemic these days, is a result of what we do."
More than 40 of Yarrow’s songs, many of which are found in his children’s books, are available for free to educators and administrators as resources to help stamp out bullying.
More than 22,000 schools in the United States are implementing the program, he said.
"You can’t just address the bullies and victims and expect to change the frequency or severity of that environment," Yarrow said. "You have to address the whole of the situation, especially the bystanders who can help."
Operation Respect programs have been established in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, as well as Croatia, Ukraine, Hong Kong and other countries.
Which brings Yarrow to another project he is organizing — an international peace concert in the Middle East.
"I’m deeply involved in an initiative that will hopefully become a reality where we use the kind of effort that was created when we did the marches on Washington in 1963 and the Celebration of Life March in 1969, which I co-organized with a friend named Cora Weiss, where half-a-million people participated, to end the war in Vietnam," he said. "We want to have, hopefully, two concerts — one in Palestine and the other in Israel — on May 10 or 11, where we will invite international performers to create goodwill and trust.
"The idea is to feature an event that will feature Palestinian artists on one side and Israeli artists on the other, plus some international artists such as myself and my daughter Bethany and her playing partner Rufus," Yarrow said. "If we can establish that precedent for enlarging that effort and create a real, on-the-ground, person-to-person cultural support, then the people would be able weigh in on the peace process and demonstrate their commitment to building goodwill, trust and piece."
This idea, in a sense, aligns with Operation Trust’s work.
"If we have an X generation who is caring and accepting and open to one another and thinks of ways to solve conflict in nonviolent terms, these people will grow up to be leaders and cast off ways of dissolving international dilemmas by using force and power," Yarrow said. "They will be able to reach for peaceful solutions in their lives and their countries.
"All the things I’ve done with Paul and Mary and individually through the years, have, in a way, prepared me for this effort," he said. "I do have the knowledge and skills to go forward and put together a well-organized event."
Peter Yarrow will perform at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., on Friday, April 18, and Saturday, April 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $43 and are available by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com.