Peter Yarrow of legendary trio sings songs for little folks
By Rita Papazian
Published: Sunday, June 6, 2010 - Shoreline Times
MADISON - He has been a member of the famed trinity of folk music for a half century and through their songs and political activism has
promoted their "music of conscience" that continues to attract audiences and fuel efforts for a better world.
Today Peter Yarrow of the legendary Peter, Paul and Mary folk trio, is bringing classic folk music to a new generation of young childrenwith the release of "Songs for Little Folks," the fourth in a series
of the Peter Yarrow Songbook, a collection of 12 classic, easy to learn songs and nursery rhymes. The songbook, produced by Sterling
Publishing and illustrated by Terry Widener, features lyrics, guitar chords, historical notes and a 12-song CD recorded by Yarrow and his
daughter Bethany, the mother of his 3-year-old granddaughter.
Yarrow took the stage at the Hubley Hall at First Congregational Church on the Green May 21 and with his unique style of singing and
dramatizing the lyrics of traditional folk songs he invited some "little folk" in the audience to
join him in demonstrating how the lyrics and lessons of these traditional songs can entertain as well
as offer a message for all to follow.
"Everyone of these songs has something special to say," said Yarrow, now 72, as he dissected the lyrics to have the children ponder:
"'Why does the lamb love Mary so?' The eager children cry. 'Cause Mary loves the lamb, you know.'"
During the singing of the children's folk song about the fox and the hen, rooted a few hundred years ago in England, Yarrow instructed the
audience to "try to sing it with an English accent" and when it came to the "quacking," well, you just had to "give yourself up to the
process of quacking.
"Could someone take a picture and get this on YouTube," said Yarrow as he felt the control he had over his audience as 100 pairs of arms
stretched into the air with voices quacking.
Throughout his more than hour-long program, Yarrow interspersed entertaining his audience by singing the children's folk songs,
including his own "Puff The Magic Dragon," which he co-wrote with his friend Leonard Lipton, and talking about his work with "Operation
Respect," a program he founded in 1998 to teach tolerance, respect and anti-bullying awareness to children in schools and camps. More
than 150,000 copies of the program have been distributed to educators all over the world since its inception. Educators can download the
music, free-of-charge from Operation Respect's web site.
"Operation Respect" is a natural progression in Yarrow's career, which Yarrow has described as "a long train ride," which took up
steam when Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers formed their folk trio in 1961. The group's first album, "Peter Paul and Mary"
came out in 1962 and immediately scored hits with their versions of "If I had a Hammer"
and "Lemon Tree." The former won them Grammy awards for Best Folk Recording and Best Performance by a Vocal Group.
Their next album, "Moving" included the hit tale of innocence lost," Puff (The Magic Dragon)" which reached No. 2 on the charts.
During Yarrow's book signing following his performance, George Sipprell of Branford, a retired helicopter designer for Sikorsky held
copies of the albums that he has saved all these years. Sipprell who had graduated college in 1962, recalled seeing Peter, Paul and Mary
for the first time in upstate New York. He also saw them at the March on Washington, which Yarrow helped organized to demonstrate the
Joanne Kassoff of Milford recalled at age 11 her babysitter took her to an earlier March on Washington in August 1963 where Peter, Paul
and Mary performed and Martin Luther King gave his "I Have A Dream," speech.
"That's when I first learned about the Civil Rights Movement," Kassoff said. While living in D.C. she went to all the anti-war
demonstrations in Washington. "It changed my life. I was an activist
because of Peter, Paul and Mary. I marched three times with Martin Luther King," Kassoff said watching Yarrow on stage last week, "My
life flashed before me."
Judy Stevens of Madison, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher who sat in the front row, described herself as "a child of the 60s," and
recalls the "scary time" when Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy," were assassinated within months of each other in 1968.
Stevens attended the 1969 March on Washington
"It just takes me back," said Stevens, following Yarrow's performance. "There's so much heart and soul in it." She praised the
fact that he is still extolling his message of "bringing people together and removing differences. It is just amazing."
In 1996, in an article titled "Peter, Paul and Mary: A Song to Sing All Over This Land," written by William Ruhlmann, Yarrow explained
the relationship between the music and the political movements of the time:
"In no way did I think that folk music alone was going to do it, but I did think it was more than simply the window dressing or the
accompaniment to events that were changing the concept of Americans
as to who they were and what they might be on a day-to-day basis…It had a reciprocal relationship with those events. Events would
articulate themselves, and then the music would comment on them and form a consensus for certain people who were listening to the music,
and that would be fed back into the system, and energizing it, and so forth and so on, rocking back and forth and moving forward, and it
was in this way that the civil rights movement proceeded. It was in this way that the anti-Vietnam War movement proceeded."
In a telephone interview prior to his appearance in Madison, Yarrow described the 60s as a period of "spirited revolution a
consciousness, a respect for individualism and for each human being. Reflecting upon the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, Yarrow
said, it was a "hugely powerful experience" to see 250,000 people "absolutely dedicated to no
longer allowing the second class citizenship and the repression of Americans in this country…to hear
Martin Luther King's 'dream' speech and then to see people gather their hearts and spirit together which has led to the election of an
African-American president. In 1969, he co-organized with Cora Weiss the anti-war demonstration's March on Washington which drew a half
Yarrow said today it is very hard to effect change in the ways that were accomplished in the 60s, when people were drawn together to
advocate for peace and civil rights because their hearts and spirits led them in that direction. Today, he said, "It is big business."
Business does not look at "the good of human kind. It is about making money. It is difficult to organize change." He said if he released a
new CD he wouldn't make any money; however, when he packages his music with a songbook, i.e. "Puff The Magic Dragon," he sells a
million copies. Today people have to find ways to communicate the human spirit and this has to be done through the schools and books,
he said. Corporations have no interest.
Respect is what he feels is lacking today and the impetus for his founding "Operation Respect," which gives young people the tools to
respect each other. The rudiments of the program are nonviolent resolution and the ability to empower children.
"Music is a powerful resource to stimulate the imagination and Yarrow advocates his Operation Respect curriculum that incorporates the
creative arts into the whole child's education. The creative arts "opens the heart of the kid"
which can then lead to a dialogue. He said the heart must be open in order to reach the cerebral and begin
To illustrate, he goes back to the discussion of the traditional folk songs in his songbooks for "Little Folk." These are authentic
feelings and dialogue, unlike the programming and messages children
and adults are bombarded with today in the synthetic world of television which focuses on "titillating rather than adding to a
culture of respect." Yarrow says TV offers "mean-spiritedness that kids then emulate toward one another. In turn, teachers respond to
children's mean-spiritedness in similar ways. He said TV shows like Jerry Springer show how "we have lost our own moral center with the
purpose to humiliate someone else.
"The purpose today is to make money with little rules and regulations to constrain what children watch on television," said Yarrow, who
sees his role today as moving people forward out of an aching heart.
Today, Yarrow travels the world to get his message across to educators and to introduce the Operations Respect curriculum into
education departments. He just returned from a trip to Korea and Hong Kong where he met with officials to introduce his program, his new
children's songbook, and also to perform with Noel Paul Stookey, their first performance together since the death of Mary Travers last
Four months before her death, the trio gave their final performance in New Jersey where they song their iconic songs: "Blowing in The
Wind, "If I Had A Hammer" and "This Land is Your land," as is noted on her web site: "A testament to their relentless optimism about, and
love for, America, and the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice it represents."
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peter, Paul and Mary trio. Plans are under way to develop a
television show that will look at the history of the group through the folk renaissance and consciousness of change in the 60s, Yarrow said.
Mary Travers died from side effects of one of the chemotherapy treatments after successful recovery from leukemia through a bone
marrow/stem cell transplant. Reflecting upon the last four years of her life in which she battled the disease, Yarrow speaks of the
gratitude that he and others felt to be able to experience her last years in which "we lived with an enormous amount of love and spirit."