Folk Legend Peter Yarrow Still Believes in the Healing Power of Music

Noel Paul Stookey, left, and Peter Yarrow.
Noel Paul Stookey, left, and Peter Yarrow. Live Nation
About six decades ago, the music charts were mostly filled with soft ballads and smooth soul arrangements from acts such as Shelley Fabares and Ray Charles. At that same time, Elvis was making his seventh album, and dance crazes such as the watusi and the hully-gully were trending. But while America was dancing and singing along to upbeat ditties with great hooks, a war was going on in Vietnam, a war that many Americans didn’t agree with.

This was the impetus of the anti-war musical movement which started with songwriters taking pens to paper and ended up with protest songs at the top of the charts on national radio. The civil rights movement happening in America also inspired songs from progressive musical artists.

None would be so prolific as Peter, Paul, and Mary, a folk trio who, if they couldn’t stop the conflicts, were certainly trying to heal the people going through it.

The group, which formed in 1961, consisted of Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers. Travers passed away in 2009, but Yarrow and Stookey still tour the country together under their individual names. The singers will be appearing at Mesa Arts Center on Saturday, March 18.

Yarrow spoke with Phoenix New Times about his career, some of his biggest songs, and the power they have. It was at Cornell University that Yarrow discovered the healing powers of an organic chorus, where large amounts of people sing at the same time, and it was then that he knew folk music was a transformational force that belonged in the mainstream to bring about peace and happiness.

World peace, Yarrow says, is possible, but each individual has to commit to it.

“We have to choose that path, and we have to, advocate for it by living it,” he says. “We have to advocate for it by being a part of the assertion of that point of view in terms of laws that are just, that are humane, that recognize our diversity that honor us all as valuable people. We have to understand that this is not just a matter of the way fate works, this is a matter of the way in which we, as human beings, stand up for what is good and what is right.”

It was in 1962 that the group released their self-titled debut album, Peter Paul and Mary. That record would score them many hits including “If I had a Hammer,” “Lemon Tree,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Yarrow says the latter “is actually a Ukrainian two-stanza poem that Pete Seeger heard and turned into the song that's the anthem of peace.”
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Noel Paul Stookey, left, and Peter Yarrow.
Live Nation
Two years later, the group would release “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which contrary to urban legend is not about smoking pot, but coming of age and letting go of childish distractions. We asked Yarrow if “Puff” represents cognitive dissonance from a child’s point of view or if it could represent every stage of life.

"In some ways, it’s as vital and continuingly meaningful as it was,” he says of the tune, adding that stories about people who are genuinely in love countervail other forces that wish to inflict harm. “And that's what 'Puff' is,” he adds. “It is a little moment of that, and people still resonate with that. ... [It] still is relevant and still moves people. And I feel enormously gratified by the sense that people are still able to — I'm not just talking about adults — I'm talking about young people that come and have learned it from their parents or grandparents.”

If there is one thing that Peter, Paul, and Mary wanted to convey back then, it was a message of peace and freedom. Yarrow believes that music is a transformational force or at least a pleasant disruption from superficial lives. After 60 years, is the 84-year-old folk singer disappointed with modern society?

“I'm fearful for what is happening, but I think we're dealing with new forces,” he contends. “It's not that humanity has changed; it’s that the forces that are tearing us apart are different now. We didn't have this kind of reality when we were kind of in agreement, at least, about facts.”

Folk music is a very powerful tool, he says. It’s even more powerful when people sing together. Yarrow says he is currently in a place where the very things he does as a performer and activist reaffirm that he is an instrument of peace.

“When people sing together, it's natural, it requires a certain vulnerability because when you appreciate art and you listen to music and you react to it, not a logical manner, but in a humane heartfelt emotional manner, it's not being mediated by your cerebrum,” says Yarrow. “It's not logic. And therefore, we have this marvelous event — it’s called singing together — that reinforces the feeling of joy and satisfaction and community. It's all about creating community, it's about an 'us' point of view rather than a 'me against the world' point of view.”

Peter Yarrow has given the world his voice. Whether that comes from his own songs or ones that he sings from others, this folk hero has never given up his trust in humanity.

“Our hope lies in the mobilization by those of us who care. It doesn't have to be everybody, but it has to be enough to live and practice the things for which we want to advocate,” he says. “Every act of kindness, every gesture of caring, every word of gentleness and understanding or empathy is an active building piece. I'm not talking about just peace between countries. I'm talking about the reality of what we experience as people with one another in the world.”

Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey. 7 p.m. Saturday, March 18. Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa. Cost is $50 to $70. Get tickets and info on the Mesa Arts Center website.
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Timothy Rawles

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