They used to run to center stage, a lithe blonde with a tall, goateed man on her right and a shorter goateed man on her left. The group was the creation of a manager who’d heard about them in Greenwich Village, where they’d worked all the clubs during the folk music craze of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Even as the Beatles invaded with their brand new sound, and some of the folkies faded, these three were always there, always popular.
And always righteous, first in the civil rights movement, where they shared the stage with Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, then in the peace movement, the women’s movement and then in the cause of clean air and water. They remained, together and individually, unreconstructed liberals.
On Saturday last, Peter Yarrow, 77, the Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, didn’t run to center stage at the Fletcher Opera hall in downtown Raleigh. He strode out, guitar over his shoulder, and calmly began to sing a song of moderate tempo, teaching the audience to join in. Half an hour or so in, he moved to a stool.
He was among his people, an audience of vintage years, one might say (your correspondent included) with a few younger folks in the mix. In the first 45 minutes or so, Yarrow talked a lot and sang a little. A friend had predicted he would speak at length of liberal causes, of politics. He did, but he also told spectacular stories about singing songs for the late Pete Seeger as one of the fathers of folk lay dying in a New York hospital. He talked about Mary, Mary Travers, as a memorable and strong soul who died in 2009 after a career of nearly 50 years with Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey (who still performs). His stories were lyrical, poetic really, and genuine.
Some came to the evening, it seemed, ready to shed a few tears of nostalgia, with visions of absent friends, perhaps, with thoughts of youth — ah, youth — that the music and the singers of one’s formative years evoke. I thought I spotted a random tear later, as Yarrow sang songs of message and memory.
Peter, Paul and Mary mattered to people. They led some to discover music, to sing, to buy a guitar. Others were awakened to the causes of social justice by those songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land Is Your Land.”
Yarrow’s still there, singing (the audience always joins in) “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” and “Don’t Laugh at Me,” a song about how the differences, the minor flaws in youngsters, can cause them pain when used against them by others. “Don’t laugh at me, don’t cause me pain, don’t get your pleasure from my pain, in God’s eyes we’re all the same ...” He uses that song in a national awareness campaign called “Operation Respect,” a campaign in part about bullying.
On Saturday, he engaged in a spirited stage-to-audience exchange with 7-year-old Margaret, who was so charming and articulate in her comments that Yarrow said at one point, “Margaret, people are going to think that you travel with me.”
Margaret was the first on stage when he invited all audience members to come to the stage and join him in a song he said he had no choice but to sing. And so they came, these old folkies, trooping up the stairs and gathering around Yarrow, who hit the first unmistakable notes, “Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea ...” When he passed the microphone around, shyness vanished, as it does when one reaches a certain age of confidence. The last chorus he changed, as Peter, Paul and Mary did in their final performing years, to “lives” by the sea, and his stage mates this night picked it up. Back, back, back we went to the “land of Honah Lee.”
Wrinkles vanished and aches and pains were forgotten and the lyrics came back, 50 years later, with nary a single miscue. There must be magic in that dragon, and certainly there is in that troubadour.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at email@example.com