Music News & Reviews

Where have all the folk singers gone?

Yarrow has a history of political activism and playing concerts to support popular causes. Recently he’s been involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Yarrow has a history of political activism and playing concerts to support popular causes. Recently he’s been involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement. MCCLATCHY TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

Last October, Peter Yarrow dropped by New York City’s Zuccotti Park to play one of his favorite tunes: “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Yarrow, a member of the influential folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, modified the verses a little for his audience of Occupy Wall Street protesters—changing the setting to “Liberty Square” and comparing bond traders to pirates.

“The Occupy movement is about the heart of America, not just the policies,” said Yarrow, who performs Feb. 10 in Arroyo Grande.

According to the 73-year-old singer-songwriter, activism is an essential part of Peter, Paul and Mary’s legacy.

“It’s what kept us together,” he said. “We had a sense of purpose.”

Thirst for justice

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Yarrow studied folk music at New York City’s High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia High School) and Cornell University, graduating in 1959.

According to Yarrow, it was his mother, a high school English teacher who belonged to Planned Parenthood and the local teacher’s union, who first awakened his thirst for social justice.

“She just wanted more fairness in the world,” he recalled.

Yarrow found an ally in fellow folk singer Mary Travers, who also grew up in a liberal, left-leaning household.

“She was really a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, heart and headspace,” recalled Yarrow, whose manager, Albert Grossman, encouraged him to form a folk group.

To fill out the trio, Yarrow selected Noel Paul Stookey, an “extraordinarily gifted” performer with a background in jazz, pop and rock ’n’ roll.

“I knew it was magic the first time we sang ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ ” Yarrow said. “It was palpable.”

The three musicians made their recording debut as Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962.

Their eponymous album— which featured the traditional songs “Lemon Tree” and “500 Miles” and covers of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”—quickly shot to the top of the Billboard charts. It eventually attained double-platinum status.

Peter, Paul and Mary had another massive hit in 1963 with “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” penned by Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. (The song, about a young boy and his mythical friend, inspired a children’s book and three animated television specials.)

That year also marked one of Peter, Paul and Mary’s largest concerts in support of the civil rights movement.

The group performed “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” in front of approximately 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington.

“The record company told us that ‘If you go to that march, you’ll never sell any records in the South,’ ” Yarrow recalled. “And we didn’t.”

Still, he said, most of the group’s fans recognized their sincerity even if they didn’t share their political views.

“They were moved by the music,” he said. “Essentially, what we were sharing onstage was an image of people who were very, very open to each other. It was very passionate.”

Peter, Paul and Mary also served as vocal opponents of the Vietnam War. The 1969 release of their No. 1 hit song “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” written by John Denver, coincided with the height of the anti-war movement.

“Veterans loved ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane.’ It was their goodbye song,” recalled Yarrow, who helped organize a massive protest march in Washington D.C. in 1969. “We didn’t condemn the warriors. We condemned the war.”

Yarrow, Stookey and Travers split in 1970 to pursue solo careers, reuniting for a 1972 concert in support of George McGovern’s presidential campaign and a 1978 concert protesting nuclear energy.

They came together once more in 1981, touring on a regular basis until Travers’ death in 2009.

Transformative music

These days, Yarrow spends most of his time performing and working with the nonprofit organization Operation Respect, which he founded with educator Charlotte Frank more than a decade ago.

“Its objective is to create an environment in schools and communities that is caring and respectful,” he explained, through the use of inspiring music, videos and other classroom curricula. “In that kind of environment, you don’t see the bullying and the violence.”

According to Yarrow, Operation Respect and its Don’t Laugh at Me programs are rooted in several social justice movements, including civil rights, women’s rights and environmentalism.

“The genesis really reflected the reality that if we had a respectful society, we would not have to be marching (and protesting),” he said. “We’re marching for respect as well as equity.”

He sees a nationwide need for uplifting, transformative music.

“Tell me a song in the last 20 years like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ that everybody knows, that inspires people,” said Yarrow, who has published a total of five book-and-CD sets for children. “How can we bring the spirit of that kind of music back into the lives of kids?They need all these tools to not only achieve, but succeed.”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.