An Interview with Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow Who Performs This Friday at Toms River’s Grunin Center
By Spotlight Central
originally published: 05/09/2018
Legendary folk singer Peter Yarrow will make an appearance at the Jersey Shore this Friday, May 11, 2018 when he presents an intimate folk concert at 8pm at the Grunin Center of the Arts — located on the campus of Toms River, NJ’s Ocean County College — along with the folk music group, Mustard’s Retreat.
Yarrow was born in New York City in 1938. After graduating from Cornell University, he joined Noel “Paul” Stookey and Mary Travers to form the folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary. The trio rose to the forefront of the folk-protest movement, performing songs of social justice at the historic March on Washington, D.C. — led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr — as well as the Selma-Montgomery March of 1965.
The group toured together for nearly 10 years before breaking up in 1970 to pursue individual careers. Yarrow continued to write music, notably “Torn Between Two Lovers,” a #1 hit for Mary MacGregor.
In 1972, Peter, Paul and Mary reunited for a concert supporting George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and then again in 1978 at a concert protesting nuclear energy. Shortly after, they resumed touring, and played nearly 50 shows a year until Travers’ death in 2009.
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These days, Yarrow continues to perform as a solo artist, with his long-time musical colleague Noel “Paul” Stookey, and with other musicians including folk artists Mustard’s Retreat.
As a social activist, Yarrow produced and coordinated many events as a part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1970, he organized concerts at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium enlisting the talents of such legendary artists as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tom Paxton, Miles Davis, and Paul Simon to perform.
In 2000, Yarrow formed Operation Respect, a non-profit organization that aims to reduce school violence by teaching children tolerance and respect for diversity. The organization developed the Don’t Laugh at Me program which uses music and video to teach conflict resolution to elementary and middle school students and is distributed at no cost to schools around the world.
Yarrow performed in Ho Chi Minh City in 2005 at a concert to benefit the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange, and in 2011, he made an appearance with his son and daughter during the Occupy Wall Street protests playing songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and a variation of his own composition, “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Spotlight Central recently had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Yarrow and ask him about his childhood musical recollections, his passion for the arts as a teenager, the origins of his career in folk music, his work with Peter, Paul and Mary, and about his current goals as one of the preeminent voices in folk music.
Spotlight Central: As a child, when did you first become interested in music?
Peter Yarrow: My first moment of being overwhelmed by the beauty of music took place at the YMHA — the 92nd Street “Y” in New York City — where I heard a concert by the extraordinary violinist, Isaac Stern. My mother took me there and I was just blown away. I begged her to study the violin, and I started doing that when I was eight years old; I studied for a couple of years [laughs] — until my teacher made me cry — and then I dropped it.
Later on, at the YMHA, however, I went to see folk singer, Josh White, give a concert and that’s when I just flipped out over folk music.
Spotlight Central: So, while growing up, you appreciated both classical music and folk music, but were there any other types of music — or even any particular songs or artists — that you especially enjoyed as a child?
Peter Yarrow: Well, classical and folk were the two main types of music I enjoyed, and the artists I preferred were the artists I was exposed to — like Burl Ives. We had some Burl Ives records — and some Josh White records, too — and when I say records, I mean the kind that when you drop them, they break — not vinyl!
And we had classical music records, too. So, for example, I remember listening to Ruggiero Ricci’s recordings on records, too — he was an extraordinary violinist.
Spotlight Central:When we think of you as an instrumentalist, however, we think of you as being a guitarist. When did you start playing the guitar?
Peter Yarrow: Well, after I had heard Josh White — who played the guitar extraordinarily well — and after I dropped the violin lessons, at around the age of 10 or 11, my mom mysteriously brought home a guitar that she said was for her, and not for me.
Now, of course, it was bought for me — it was a small Martin guitar — and in our family, money was very scarce — we didn’t have money for new clothes; my sister and I only wore hand-me-downs — but my mom had enough money when it came to something of that sort which was a priority. And so she got me that small Martin guitar, and I played it all the way through college.
Spotlight Central:But when you were in high school, we understand that you studied painting at New York’s High School of Music and Art. Is that correct?
Peter Yarrow: Actually, as a kid, I was more engaged in painting than I was in music. It started very early on and, as a young child from around the age of 10, I went to the Art Students League in New York. And, later, I did go to the High School of Music and Art as an art student — and I’ve recently started painting again, as well.
Spotlight Central:That’s great! Another thing we learned about you is that you were a psychology major at Cornell, but it was at that time that you started singing in public while studying American folk literature. What was it about that experience that inspired you?
Peter Yarrow: I had an undergraduate instructorship in English 355/356 which was in folk ballads and folk songs, and it was taught by Professor Harold Thompson. Nicknamed “Romp and Stomp,” it was a notorious course in which you could get an A if you just showed up, so a lot of pre-med students signed up for it because it would give them a virtual A as a part of their college record.
So the course was enormously popular, and the reason it had such an influence on my life is because I got to perform in the context of the class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there would be class periods where Dr. Thompson would talk about folk music and play some songs, and in addition to taking attendance and marking papers, I would play a song or two. But the other part of the class would take place every Saturday morning at 10am where we would have a “sing-in.”
Now this was taking place at a very conservative time in our country — a time when racial bias was flagrant and women were not really respected — a point when there were approximately four male students to every one female on campus. And unlike at the High School of Music and Art — which was way ahead of its time — the values hadn’t shifted yet on campus like they would in the 1960s.
So when I was singing at this place — a place where I really felt like a fish out of water — all of a sudden in my senior year I saw these students that I thought were stuck-up and so focused on the wealth of their parents, etc., open up when they sang, and it was transformational!
When I saw this happening, I’ve been told I said, “Well, you know, the world is gonna change!” And, so, when I graduated, rather than taking my degree in experimental psychology and doing something with that, I went right to Greenwich Village.
Spotlight Central:And it was there — in the Village — where you put together your iconic folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary. Do you recall what your thoughts were when you first heard that incredible vocal blend?
Peter Yarrow: Well, when I was at Cornell, I had a singing partner — who went on to become a doctor. But I loved singing with others, so it came quite naturally to me when the idea for making a group came from Albert Grossman — who was my manager and, later, Peter, Paul and Mary’s manager. He thought creating a folk trio was a really brilliant idea and he wanted to develop such a group.
And so we looked for various partners — I sang with some others before Paul and Mary, and it really wasn’t “there” — but when I sang with those two, it was magic! We sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and whoever took the lead, the others found the harmonies, and it worked no matter how we did it — it was really unbelievable.
Spotlight Central:It sure was! And with Peter, Paul and Mary, you went on to record songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” — all written by other great composers — but you also wrote some classic songs for the group including “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Light One Candle,” and “The Great Mandala.” Do you have a favorite Peter, Paul and Mary song — one that you’ve either written or recorded — that you especially enjoy performing these days?
Peter Yarrow: Well, my repertoire is really almost entirely Peter, Paul and Mary songs, except for a few songs I’ve written, or some that others have written more recently. Even though the trio is no longer a trio — Mary passed away seven and a half years ago — the songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” are still the most moving to me. When I sing them, I remember Mary. And, also, I enjoy having kids join me in singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” — so that’s my playbook, both literally and figuratively.
Spotlight Central: In addition to social activism through music, you’ve been heavily involved in teaching children respect through music in an educational program you helped create called Operation Respect. Why — in your opinion — is music such an effective vehicle for the implementation of social change?
Peter Yarrow: For the same reason it was powerful when I saw it in English 355/356 — it was powerful then and it’s powerful still today. Music gathered the hearts of the people in that class, and it still gathers people in the real world to strengthen their resolve and know they’re not alone in their hopes and dreams. So it’s a powerful tool that functions in that way and the reason that it does so is mysterious and magical, but it is well known that when people sing together, it has a profound effect on them because it doesn’t just reach their logical hearts and minds but it reaches their spiritual hearts and minds.
Spotlight Central:And speaking of reaching hearts and minds, we understand you will be doing a concert on May 11 at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts. What can folks expect to see and hear at your performance?
Peter Yarrow: They’ll hear the repertoire that they’re familiar with, plus a couple of songs that have recently been written by me. So most of it will be familiar, but I will frame the concert with words about what those songs were historically, and how they affected people and events.
More importantly, however, I’m very much focused on an effort to bring the two sides of our vitriolic-ally split nation back together — not that we have to agree politically, but to agree to be able to disagree and still trust, care, and even love one another.
It’s an effort called Better Angels and I’ve just finished a rough cut of a documentary which focuses on one of the Better Angels workshops. Here, Democrats and Republicans come together where the object is not to change anyone’s political thinking, but to humanize the participants and to get them away from this terrible stereotyping and characterizing of one another that dehumanizes the other’s opposing point of view.
So, in conclusion, I’d say that engaging in this concert, for me, is not really a matter of performing. Rather, it’s a matter of experiencing something that gives me hope and which serves something positive within all of us and can give us a break from this terribly painful time in which we’re so divided and dealing with challenges to the survival of our democratic institutions. As a result, at this upcoming event, we’ll all have an opportunity to live an experience together through music!
Showtime for Peter Yarrow’s performance this Friday, May 11, 2018 with Mustard’s Retreat is 8pm at the Grunin Center of the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College, in Toms River, NJ. Tickets are $35 and $30 and may be purchased online by going to grunincenter.com.