What would you call a person who graduated with a physics prize from high school, while he was really studying painting? Someone who went to Cornell where he majored in psychology—after first studying physics? Well, in the case of Peter Yarrow, you’d call him an iconic singer/songwriter and activist. And he’ll be performing in Traverse City at Milliken Auditorium November 12.
Best-known as one-third of Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow continues to work as both a solo artist and in a trio with his daughter Bethany and cellist Rufus Cappadocia. That includes sharing “Lift Us Up,” a song he recently wrote and posted on Facebook, where it attracted 66,000 hits. “It relates to what is going on in the election, and not just in the election but post-election,” Yarrow says in a phone interview. He adds it doesn’t address Donald Trump directly, “but it’s written as a response to Trump.”
So is his song “The Children Are Listening,” written for Operation Respect, a non-profit education and advocacy organization dedicated to transforming schools, summer camps and other youth-serving organizations into respectful, safe and compassionate climates of learning, free of bullying, ridicule and violence. Yarrow founded the NPO in 1999 with Dr. Charlotte Frank, McGraw-Hill Education senior advisor. It disseminates a classroom-based curriculum, the “Don’t Laugh at Me,” program, free of charge to schools worldwide.
Yarrow has a very long history of supporting liberal and progressive causes, dating back to when Peter, Paul and Mary marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their song “If I Had a Hammer” became one of the theme songs of the civil rights movement.
Yarrow first discovered that he loved performing while in a literature class where singing in front of his fellow students was a requirement. After graduating, he played folk clubs around New York City, then met Albert Grossman at the Newport Folk Festival. They discussed Grossman’s idea for a trio that would cross over from folk to pop. Yarrow noticed a photo of Mary Travers on the wall, and after the two hit it off they enlisted Noel Paul Stookey as the third member. The group’s single “If I Had a Hammer” garnered two Grammy Awards in 1962. The trio’s first album, the eponymous Peter, Paul & Mary, remained in the Top Ten for 10 months, in the Top Twenty for two years and sold more than two million copies.
Peter, Paul and Mary became as well known for their social consciousness as their music. Over the course of the next four decades, the group participated in many protests with Dr. King, recorded numerous albums and singles and won award after award. Travers died in 2009 from leukemia. Today Stookey and Yarrow continue to perform, occasionally with one another.
Yarrow still embraces the folk aesthetic, with people drawn to the sound of a guitar and a voice with music that stands for something. He says that’s in direct contrast to the climate today in the music business. “Music has been commodified,” he says. “People in the 60s and 70s totally got it that they were running record companies. When everything’s bottom line is dollars, I assure you that produces mediocrity and worse.”
He bemoans the fact that so much of music has become empty of meaning. “It’s an absence of content, also caused by the fact it is not what makes money.” He hastened to add that he wasn’t including all popular music in that. “Not hip hop—aspects of that can be politically meaningful and socially relevant.” As an example, he pointed to the group Peace Poets, which recently performed at the Black Hills Unity Concert in South Dakota in support of Native American rights. Also on the bill were Yarrow as well as Bethany and Rufus.
Yarrow says his concert at Milliken will feature songs new and old. “There will be lots of moments of fun. On ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ I’ll invite kids to join me onstage as I always do.” But the man who says he sees folk music as “a voice for uniting our efforts to combat serious challenges and assault our goodness” can be counted on to voice his opinions—and listen to those of others. “We have to reach out and listen and develop affinity for people who are suffering,” Yarrow says.
Tickets for Yarrow’s 8 p.m. show November 12 are $35 online, $30 for museum members, and $40 at the door. Go to MyNorthTickets.com.