Peter Yarrow: An American singer

Activism still a way of life for former member of Peter, Paul & Mary
Peter YarrowPhoto courtesy of Miri Stebivka

Peter Yarrow's music is not anachronistic. It's as much about efforts toward civil liberties today as it was in the '60s.

Yarrow is Peter of Peter, Paul & Mary, a folk trio whose career began within the framework of the U.S. civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Influenced by early folk artists Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and his Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary were at the helm of a commercial folk revolution in the early '60s.

If you go

Who: Peter Yarrow

When: 8 p.m. Thursday,

Jan. 31

Where: Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland

Tickets: $25 in advance, $28 at the door and $10 for ages 12 through 17

Call: 541-535-3562 or see www.stclairevents.com

"Folk musicians exhorting social commentary would have been blacklisted by the McCarthy witch hunt before the '50s and '60s," Yarrow says during a telephone interview. "The end of the McCarthy era is what precipitated the folk renaissance."

Seeger's Weavers morphed out of a New York City-based folk group, called the Almanac Singers, that was active between 1940 and 1943. Its members — Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and Woody Guthrie — specialized in songs advocating anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophies.

The group disbanded after World War II, and the Weavers formed in 1948. The new folk quartet based itself in Greenwich Village and sang traditional songs from around the world, as well as blues, gospel and labor songs. It had a driving, string-band style that helped inspire the folk boom that followed in the '50s and '60s.

"Peter, Paul & Mary were the bridge to '60s folk music," Yarrow says. "It happened to others, of course. Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan."

Yarrow's songwriting helped create some of Peter, Paul & Mary's most famous songs, including "The Great Mandala," "Light One Candle," "Day is Done" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon."

"There was a predisposition in the country to examine what our culture had handed us, and to see whether it conformed with our ideas of America," Yarrow says. "We saw the remnants of slavery, lynchings in the South, and we thought it was blatantly inconsistent with the Pledge of Allegiance. Folk music is a way to create community. To offer people a sense of connection to one another, so that those who feel excluded know they have a voice."

Highlights of Peter, Paul & Mary's fame include performing at Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963 and a 1969 march on Washington, D.C., to end the Vietnam War.

"Those events were an overwhelming confirmation that we don't have to rely on change coming from the top. It can emerge from the grass roots and profoundly affect the nation," Yarrow says. "I think Peter, Paul & Mary were on the official or unofficial list of Nixon's enemies."

Activism still is a way of life for the 74-year-old Yarrow. He's busy organizing a Feb. 10 concert at Ridgefield Theater Barn near Newtown, Conn., "that will bring people together in caring and healing after the Sandy Hook shootings," he says. In 1999, Yarrow founded Operation Respect, a nonprofit organization committed to providing children with safe and compassionate climates of learning free from bullying, ridicule and violence.

"There's something about being an activist that gives you a certain courage," Yarrow says. "I don't just look back at those events in the '60s. The issues have changed, but the core principles of justice, equity and peace are the same. It's imperative that every generation continue to work toward these principles."

Peter, Paul & Mary ended when Mary Travers died in 2009.

"I sing the Peter, Paul & Mary repertoire," Yarrow says. "I contextualize the songs with a sense of yesterday's history and today's imperatives. That is my music, and I carry it on. It will continue after I am gone."


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