Peter Yarrow From Peter, Paul and Mary Tells Us About Music and Activism

Paul Whyte

This weekend will kick off a season full of performances at Big Top Chautauqua. The unique venue is located between Washburn and Bayfield, Wisconsin. The area is a popular tourist destination for those traveling in the Northland. With miles of sandy beaches, woods and plenty of other stops to check out, it’s a wonderful place to be in the summer. Winters are of course a little more debatable on how great that area is.   
There will be numerous acts this summer including Peter Frampton, The Charlie Daniels Band, Lyle Lovett and Brandi Carlile, to name just a few. One of the first acts to play this year will be Peter Yarrow, best known for his work with Peter, Paul and Mary and will be playing the hilltop venue on Friday, June 19. Yes, he is the guy behind songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
While I am a music writer, that’s not why I got into writing. My interest in Yarrow did involve a little about his music, yes. What was more important to me was that he has a unique view on politics and society. His music career developed during the Vietnam War, which was a tumultuous time for the United States. I wasn’t there, but all I really have as a journalist is movies, books and talking to people who were around during that time. Over asking Yarrow about Puff the Magic Dragon, the foremost thing on my mind was to ask him about where we’ve been and where we’re going as a society.

Reader: Have you ever been up here before?

Yarrow: I’ve been so many places. Where are you?

Reader: I’m at the very western tip of Lake Superior on the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Yarrow: Peter, Paul and Mary have been up in that area a number of times in the 1960s. (I told my father that I interviewed Yarrow and he informed me that I’ve actually seen Peter, Paul and Mary as a young child at the Bayfront in Duluth and that I was bored. I have no recollection of that. I gained a deep appreciation of music at around 13 years of age. Probably puberity or something. Needless to say it’s been a few years since Yarrow has been in the area. Let’s move on from that awkward tidbit of information…)

Reader: What inspired you to get into playing music?

Yarrow: Well, when I was a senior at Cornell University, I had a class with folk music and folk ballads. On Saturdays instead of having a class they’d have a sing along. In 1959 when I was a senior, Cornell was a very backward place, as were all of the other Ivy League colleges. In the since that there was all the fraternities and the wealth of the parents. Women were treated like objects and there was a division between Jews and Christians. What was common then would be looked at now as something backward.
I came to this class and we sang together. They were transformed into a very caring and emotionally open group of students and so I realized that this music could be transformational and predicted that this would happen in the United States, and it did.

Reader: Can you tell me a little bit more about consciousness and caring in the United States? I know you’ve been an activist during the Vietnam war. Can you tell me about then to now and what we face?

Yarrow: In the 1960s there were societal ways of doing things and prescribed cultural interactions that were really very cruel and very backward. We had the remnants of slavery and women were second class citizens. There were all kinds of very deep prejudices. The value system itself was focused around wealth.

Reader: As it continues to this day.

Yarrow: So, in the 1960s, a great change took place where all of those conventions were examined and it became a very iconic era. Music became very much the cutting edge vehicle for questioning those traditions. When Peter, Paul and Mary entered the arena of the civil rights movement, we were able to be one of many performing entities that echoed the citizen’s abilities that were in the process of changing. We became one of the hallmarks of the activism that was engendered in the United States and not only activism of the new way, the whole idea that ordinary people could change history. Growing together in the passion of civil rights movement. From that point on the civil rights became the mother of all the other movements that has changed this country. The mother of the gender equality movement, the start of the environmental movement, the anti-war movement.

Reader: But where are we at today? Things are still pretty scary.

Yarrow: Things are not only pretty scary, in a sense we’re in a more precipitous and dangerous time more than ever because the dangers of doing it wrong now spell the real possibility of the destruction of the planet. For instance, if we do not change the way we handle what is clearly the writing on the wall. With catastrophic climate change, we will cease to exist. We’re already losing the polar caps to the point where it’s totally irreversible. So you might ask, “where is place of music?” or “where is place of Peter Yarrow?” at this point. Well, I’m right there at the anti-fracking marches. I’m there with Tim DeChristopher (a renowned environmental activist) and Wisconsin. I was up there with 100,000 people and we were trying to deal with the policies that lean towards people with money.

Reader: Things in Wisconsin have been rough as I’m sure you know.

Yarrow: I’ve been up there campaigning with Tammy Balwin (a former United States Senator). Protesting with 1000s of people in a loving way when Scott Walker was in his process of depriving workers, as you know, the state workers were deprived of collective bargaining.

Reader: Yes, I’m aware. (I went down to Madison to cover the protests which included 1000s of teachers, firefighters and many others including even members of law enforcement in February 2011 and have been some what out spoken about Scott Walker’s stance in the state of Wisconsin ever sense).

Yarrow: The most most important tool of providing equality was providing workers with those rights in the post war era (we’re assuming he meant WWII or Vietnam as the United States is perpetually at war). As we go forward. We need to get together to  get money out of decision making because it’s perverting democracy and our elections. We need to make sure that decisions by oil and gas companies are not creating the policy around those issues and driven by money. How do you do that? We need to have a grass roots effort like we did in the 1960s, yet it’s more difficult not for a lot of reasons. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole new generation trying. I’m with them  and I’m helping them. They’re taking the leadership. The wages of something going wrong now are catastrophic.

Reader: What is the best case scenario out of this? The 60s are before my time but I’m entering this era and that’s why I even became a writer. There still needs to be a change, and music has helped, but it seems that even with social media and everything else, people don’t care as much as they used to.

Yarrow: It’s true, because the kinds of vehicles for igniting people’s hearts, including music, which was a very big deal in terms of serving as a motivational pieces during the movement in the 60s and 70s, that’s been taken over by money interests and profits. Not concerned with the next Bob Dylan or the next Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan wouldn’t do very well on American Idol these days. It’s not about substance, it’s not about technique. It’s about virtuosity, not singing the songs that tell the story of the heart of the Nation and its moral perspective.

Reader: I can’t disagree with that. It seems like things have become a lot more shallow.

Yarrow: When something is taken by business, particularly in the artistic area, it becomes mediocre at best.

Reader: Well, you’re coming up to this area and it’s beautiful during the summer. Do you have anything to say about people and fans can expect?

Yarrow: Sure, my joy in singing these days is that I can speak about the history I have lived with Paul and Mary. I can do it in song and not only give people a glimpse of what was, but I can also show the relevance of this music to our time now. There will be Puff the Magic Dragon and I’ll have kids singing that on stage with me and Blowing in the Wind and If I had a Hammer. They will acquire a kind of vitality and immediacy that is very important because I think that is in people’s hearts. The same impulses to make a more sane and just world. That still exists and we can be united. People can enjoy it and be connected to each other. We cannot say that peace at this time is just the end of hostility between nations. It’s something that has to be created in the hearts of people in small places so that there is a cumulative effect, a ripple effect. For instance, the shift in the perspective in the United States towards gay and lesbian marriage. That didn’t happen because Abraham Lincoln said “this will change and here’s your emancipation proclamation.” It happened because people were living that way and people started empathizing and that came a building block to those who believed in that. When I sing in Wisconsin, I’ll be singing the Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire, you’ll be hearing those songs, but the perspective is uniting people in some kind of meaningful way that reflects those feelings that we shared years ago.

Reader: Thank you very much. I write about music, politics and social issues and value what you’ve told me very much.

Yarrow: Thank you, brother.     


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

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