Peter Yarrow is on a mission. His “religion,” in song and deed, is the universal quest for peace and love.
Yarrow remains committed to promoting the ideals he carried through the 1960s as a member of the folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary.
The trio recorded some of that decade’s iconic songs, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and Bob Dylan’s civil rights anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Yarrow will sing these and other PP&M classics at a PineCone-sponsored concert Jan. 30 at Fletcher Opera Theatre in Raleigh.
Yarrow, 77, is also an activist. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and organized protests against the Vietnam War. While the PP&M era closed in 1970, Yarrow continues to work for peace and civility through his concerts and through Operation Respect, the nonprofit organization he co-founded as a vehicle for promoting tolerance and respect for diversity in schools. Some 22,000 schools in the U. S. and other countries use the program, which incorporates music as a means to combat bullying and establish compassionate environments for learning.
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He’s also written children’s books incorporating songs and stories for use by educators interested in applying Operation Respect’s principles in classrooms. The songs are available for download at operationrespect.org.
On a snowy day from his home in Telluride, Colo., Yarrow spoke about his music, his career and Operation Respect.
Q: You were born and raised in Manhattan. When did you become involved in the Greenwich Village folk scene?
A: I arrived there in 1959.
Q: As Bob Dylan and others in the Village’s folk scene began to gain national prominence, did you have the sense that historical change was beginning to happen?
A: Everybody did. It was the most exciting, positive, optimistic time you can imagine. We were on the cusp of something extraordinary happening in terms of a shift of the culture. It was not specifically political for many people. It was really about ... eliminating those societal restraints that turned us into unthinking, unfeeling people who were following the rules of some kind of legacy of Victorian practice and culture. We re-evaluated what does it mean to love somebody? What does it mean to think for yourself?
Q: Peter, Paul and Mary was managed by Albert Grossman, who also managed Dylan. Your trio earned two Grammy Awards for “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Was Grossman responsible for bringing the song to you?
A: He brought that song to (us) in Chicago, and we flipped out. The next rehearsal back in New York we worked out the arrangement. And for the first time went in the studio not to record an album, but to record this song and put it out. We were so sure of its importance.
Q: Looking back on the idealism and activism of the ’60s, what are your thoughts about our country today?
A: The bifurcation of our country is nothing new. It really became a divided country over the war in Vietnam. The bitterness of that perspective still exists. On one side, if you criticize our country, you’re disloyal. No matter what our country does, it is, by definition, right and great. The other position says what Pete Seeger says in his song (“If I Had a Hammer”): If we don’t hammer out justice and ring the bell of freedom, and sing the song of love between our brothers and our sisters, our rights and justice will erode.
Q: You work toward those objectives through Operation Respect. What are the goals of your organization?
A: Operation Respect for the past 18 years has been my passion and the focus of most of my work. I came to the conclusion that ... for a variety of reasons, the United States is getting more mean-spirited, more bullying. Not just kids in schools but in Congress, the Republican primary for goodness sakes, in business, in greed and selfishness. There is a dearth of empathy. That causes a lot of the problems we’re looking at.
If we have kids who are brought up in a caring way, if they’re taught the tools of sensitivity to one another and the rudiments of nonviolent conflict resolution, given a sense of their own value as human beings because of intrinsic reasons instead of money and fame but because of the goodness of their hearts, we would have a we-centered culture. These problems are essential to cure if we are going to restore a good heart to our nation and the world.
So to me, the answer is not only doing what we can with adults, but focusing on education of the hearts of children. We learned this in the ’60s – the only way to really make fundamental progress of change and make it work is through love. You have to create more caring in society.
Q: Has your Jewish heritage influenced your perspectives toward justice and civil rights?
A: I went to Ethical Culture, which is a perspective that says the practice of your religion is the way you live your life. That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of being Jewish. I am, but I’m not particularly involved with Jewish ritual. I really identify myself in terms of the way I practice tikkun olam, which is doing my part to heal the world. It’s just in me. The song I wrote, “Weave Me the Sunshine,” is filled with Judaic inferences.
Q: Your concerts consist of Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire, along with historical context for the songs. Is there anything else you would like people to know?
A: What is important to me is that after intermission I ask people to request songs. I sing only requests in the second half. And I always bring the kids up to sing “Puff.” That song is the highlight of the concert. People ask if they’ll hear “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The answer is, “Not because I have to, but because it is my honor and my pleasure to do so.”
Who: Peter Yarrow
When: Rescheduled for Jan. 30
Where: Fletcher Opera Theatre, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Info: 919-996-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com