SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Peter Yarrow is one of the very few who knows the power music can have in changing the world. As a member of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow was on the frontlines of some of the biggest social activist movements of the 1960s, from the push against the Vietnam War to the demand for racial and gender equality. He and bandmates Noel “Paul” Stookey and Mary Travers even performed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington, which Yarrow described as an experience unlike any other.
Through it all it was music, particularly folk music, that entered a young generation’s hearts and drove them into battle against the injustices of society. It was folk music that acted as the soundtrack for those who unshackled themselves from the bonds of normalcy to protest the prejudices that had ingrained themselves into the American culture of the day. It was folk music, as Yarrow recalled, that helped make a difference.
“It was authentically the voice of people telling their stories, their dreams, their aspirations, their experiences,” Yarrow told the News-Record in a Feb. 5 phone interview. “It was not written for the money. It was written for people to express their honest feeling. And part of those feelings had to do with a desire to alter the world to be a more caring, fair, equitable and loving place.”
With hits like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Day is Done,” Peter, Paul and Mary helped spearhead folk music’s call for change, opening people’s eyes to the necessity of peace and civil rights and paving the way for progress. Five decades later the world is a much different place than the one the Grammy-winning trio fought to make better, yet Yarrow still performs the group’s classic songs. His latest tour includes a stop at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, where he will perform on a double bill with fellow folk artist John Gorka on Friday, Feb. 26.
And five decades later people still long to hear their favorite songs, perhaps none more so than the beloved 1963 single “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” When he co-wrote the song — a bittersweet lament to the loss of childhood innocence that spawned three 1970s television specials and a 2007 children’s songbook he co-authored — Yarrow said he had no idea it would resonate with so many people for so many years. The fact that it has had such a legacy speaks to the unexpected nature of the music business, he said.
“I don’t think a writer really knows the effect his or her work is going to have,” Yarrow said. “You just can’t measure that any more than Peter, Paul and Mary knew the effect we were going to have. You just do it, and then later you can look back and say ‘That was extraordinary.’”
While Peter, Paul and Mary songs remain popular among fans to this day, folk music in general has long fallen off the top of the music charts, marginalized in favor of music promoting what Yarrow described as a more commercial message. He said a key reason for this has to do with record companies focusing more on profits than art. And while it would be nice if today’s singers and songwriters took on the responsibility of initiating social change, he said the values of modern society make that “wishful thinking.”
“There’s a real absence of empathy and compassion in our country and a growing materialism,” Yarrow said. “And there’s a mean-spiritedness that’s demonstrable, whether it’s watching the Republican debates or whether it’s watching TV reality shows or it’s seeing the kind of disrespect that exists in Congress or in business.
“You’re looking at a damaged situation that needs a lot of healing,” he continued. “The culture of caring has broken down very severely, and we have to inculcate it in children.”
With that mission in mind, Yarrow has spent much of the past 20 years working with his nonprofit Operation Respect, an organization dedicated to combating bullying by fostering empathy in school children through the use of music, videos and a character-based classroom curriculum. Along with the McGraw-Hill Companies, Operation Respect has given out more than 180,000 of its free Don’t Laugh at Me programs to educators since it was founded in 1999.
Additionally, more than 45,000 educators throughout the United States and the world have participated in Operation Respect-sponsored workshops.
Through this work Yarrow said he hopes to instill the same social values in today’s children that were so prevalent among his generation in the 1960s. That way, when they grow up, they will want to make the world a better place — just as Peter, Paul and Mary did through folk music.
“We have to realize that adults alone will not be able to do what needs to happen to heal our society,” Yarrow said. “We need to educate the kids so that they can break the cycle that’s gone so terribly wrong.”
To purchase tickets to see Peter Yarrow and John Gorka at SOPAC, please call 973-313-2787 or visit www.sopacnow.org/peter-yarrow-and-john-gorka.