At the age of 79, Peter Yarrow still refuses to recede into the shadows and not raise his voice. “How am I doing?” he responds to a routine question. “Well, as good as I can be in these Draconian times.” He then launches into a scathing diatribe against President Donald Trump and his administration.
With Noel “Paul” Stookey and the late Mary Travers, Yarrow was a key member of the influential folk group Peter, Paul and Mary that raised protest music and social activism to new heights during the tumultuous 1960s. Among their classic hits were “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer” and Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
On Dec. 9, the New York-based Yarrow will perform at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills with Israeli singer and activist David Broza. In a recent phone interview, Jmore spoke with Yarrow about his career, spiritual and political beliefs, and legacy.
Jmore: How did this concert with David Broza come about?
Yarrow: We’ve known each other for 20-some years. David’s a wonderful, gifted performer and activist, and he and I are alike in mind and heart. About eight or nine years ago, I took Operation Respect [an organization co-founded by Yarrow that promotes tolerance and civility in schools] to Israel, and David recorded those songs in Hebrew. We went to four Arab and Jewish schools in Lod and Petach Tikvah; now we’re in 70 percent of the schools over there and have gone to Nablus in the West Bank. Children from all sides need this training and structure.
So David and I became close friends and he has sung at benefits for Operation Respect.
What should the Gordon Center audience expect from your show?
I’ll be singing a lot of my Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire, and there are new songs as well that contribute to that legacy. David and I will do some songs together, and he’ll do songs from his own repertoire. It’s going to be a great show.
As a chronicler of the times of your generation, how do you view today’s political and social climate?
On a daily basis, I am astonished by the collapse of the sensibilities of what our country is supposed to be about – the legislative leaders who’ve capitalized on Donald Trump and are ignoring how dangerous and abominable he is. They’re more interested in staying in office. …
What’s really distressing is that the nation is so divided in ways that echo Germany before the advent of Nazism. Everything today is so politicized and the vitriol is so extreme. When you say it’s unpatriotic to show your concern in public about a minority that’s treated unfairly, that feels like Nazi Germany to me. … We need to reach across the divide with love and friendship to people, even those who voted differently than us.
Do you think the nation is more polarized today than ever before?
I’m sure it was more so during the Civil War. But social media is a factor that can accelerate the speed in which social action can occur and make it harder to come together. Things happened more slowly before, and time was a healer. Now, that velocity can challenge us greatly.
Do you still have hope?
Every time I go onstage and hear people singing with me, I have rekindled hope. That’s my therapy. I feel hopeful and optimistic and powerful, even in the midst of what’s going on.
OK, do you ever get sick of people asking you about “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and its alleged drug references?
Yes, it does get a little old — and stupid. It’s an incorrect rumor that I often have to correct, even onstage. It was a simple song about a dragon and a boy who has to grow up, like we all have to at some point. That’s it.
Do you feel that the folk scene of the early ‘60s, as well as the civil rights and anti-war movements, have become over-romanticized in our culture?
No. Those were extraordinary periods of extraordinary suffering and pain. [At concerts] we often had bomb threats and death threats. The war was particularly horrifying, the body counts and the lying by the government which was all exposed by the Pentagon Papers. I don’t think that period has been exaggerated or over-romanticized at all. It was a time of extraordinary change.
Do you look back on certain times in your life — marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, introducing Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he famously went electric – and just shake your head?
No, I’m so preoccupied with what I’m doing about the grave threats that exist today. I’m busier now than I’ve ever been, so I don’t really look back too much.
What was the secret behind the chemistry of Peter, Paul and Mary?
It was the passion we had for our mission. We inherited our mission from Pete Seeger and the Weavers, which was to use music to create a better, fairer world. That commitment to tikkun olam [repairing the world] kept us together.
There always has to be a reason to staying together, and for Peter, Paul and Mary what held us together was there was extraordinary honesty in the group. It was all out in front largely due to Mary, who was so honest and direct. That’s what keeps you in touch with each other and why we were together for so long.
Far more important than entertaining people or recording, nothing compared remotely to the satisfaction of being involved in something that was making a difference. I can speak for Noel and Mary in that myriad people told us, “Your music was there for me at a low point” or “You were the spark for my social conscience.” To whatever degree, we knew we affected people in a positive way.
Do you still feel moved when performing classics like “Blowin’ in the Wind”?
Absolutely. The other day at Queens College, I performed “Where Have all The Flowers Gone?” and the way the audience reacted, it just moved me. When you establish a relationship with an audience and they’re singing along, it’s just unbelievable.
Your song “Light One Candle” was an anthem for the Soviet Jewry movement. How did you write that song?
I wrote it because we were singing at a Christmas-Chanukah concert at Carnegie Hall. Mary and Paul said to me, “Well, you’re the Jew in the group – write a song. ‘Dreidel, Dreidel’ isn’t going to cut it.”
Did you know it would become a song that would help guide a movement?
No. You never know how you’re going to impact people when you write a song.
Do you still feel Mary’s presence when you perform?
I can feel Mary when I perform with Noel or alone. The audiences feel it and we feel it. You can’t be married – either romantically or in a career for almost 50 years – and not feel that presence. Yes, Mary is there with us.
Mary used to call herself “The Towering Shiksa.” She wound up being pretty Jewish by the end of her life.
Many people don’t know you co-wrote the ‘70s pop hit “Torn between Two Lovers.” How did that happen?
I did not write that for myself. It was a sad song. For its time, it was very progressive. Women have an active sexuality and they have the right to be imperfect and to struggle. I was convinced it would be a number one hit and I was right.
But it wasn’t a Peter, Paul and Mary song, right?
Do you have a favorite Peter Paul and Mary song?
No. Each night, it’s different. Sometimes, it may be “Day is Done” and another time it might be “Light One Candle.” It depends on what really impacts me and the audience, as well as the flux of [current] events.
How has being Jewish impacted your career as an entertainer and an activist?
I was never bar mitzvahed. My mother was a progressive activist and very left-wing. But she was very Jewish and proud, just not religious.
To me, being Jewish and tikkun olam mean a sense of mission. I often see phrases I’ve written that are very Jewish. The idea that we turn suffering into love is a very Jewish idea. That’s how we survive and celebrate our spirituality. So I am really Jewish, not in the religious sense but in valuing the traditions and the commitment to the world and the ethical future of our children. It’s in my DNA and what makes me tick.
What’s your take on today’s music scene?
We desperately need a music of conscience. You don’t see much of it in the music world today. You’d be hard-pressed to name a “Blowin’ in the Wind” from the past 20 years. Everything is so monetized. The profit motive and greed in show biz today is what it’s all about. No one is nurturing a Bob Dylan or a Randy Newman. It’s all about next quarter’s profit.
How would you like to be remembered?
I have the feeling that it’s my embrace by real people that will be most important to my legacy. I want to be remembered as a person with feet of clay – I readily admit that and apologize for the things I did that went against my ethical standards – but I also want to be remembered as a person who worked to make things better. That’s about it.
For information about the Gordon Center concert, visit jcc.org/gordon-center .
Top photo: Peter Yarrow (handout)
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