Under cloudy, mellow skies in Woodstock it was the 80th anniversary of the Woodstock Playhouse and the 80th birthday celebration of one Woodstock’s most eminent troubadours, Peter Yarrow. Peter was performing a benefit concert for the historic playhouse where he worked as a teenage usher; the playhouse is now financially underwater. I first heard Peter sing at my high school in 1963. That was our school Christmas concert, about two weeks after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and just a few months after the March on Washington.
Peter, Paul & Mary sang their 1962 hit “If I had a Hammer,” a new trio arrangement of Pete Seeger’s 1949 folksong featuring close-blended harmony with the vibrant voice of Mary Travers and Noel Paul Stookey.They sang Pete’s children’s song “Puff the Magic Dragon” with its melancholy ending; at that time the song sounded like an allegorical elegy for our assassinated President who lived in a magical, mythical kingdom of hope called Camelot. They sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which had been written in Pete’s Woodstock cabin that summer. That simple yet eloquent song became an anthem of hope for young people like me who aspired to a world free of war, racism, corporate cruelty.
Fifty-five years later Pete was unchanged: he still possessed that magical, vibrant stage charisma, a witty self-deprecating humor mixed with defiant optimism, his voice not much changed by age, yet there was a sea of white hair sitting in the audience before him. Pete quipped that back in 1963 when he sang in Washington, DC, “the people out there looked nothing like you.” Pete coaxed the audience to sing “Music speaks louder than Words, it’s the only thing the whole world listens to.”
Yes, but is there any hope in the music people now listen to? Do young people sing together in fellowship? As Pete pointed out, something special happens when people sing together: they become one and their differences are overcome—they are no longer white or black or brown; they are no longer Democrats or Republicans; they are the voice of love and community. So what song are we now singing in this nation?
Pete sang John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the old 1946 classic “Listen, Mister Bigot,” and a recent composition with memorable melody “The children are listening,” which passionately addressed (by implication) school shootings and the bullying gestalt of our national political headlines.
The concert then became a family event. Pete’s daughter Bethany appeared with her husband cellist, Rufus Cappadocia. They sang “Don’t Laugh at Me,” “Where have all the flowers gone,” “If I had a Hammer,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” with a new ending that featured the resurrection of Puff. Bethany has a marvelous voice with great high and low range.
Yet the spark of resurrection was gone. The audience was traveling down memory lane. They sang “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” but everyone’s light was near expiration, including my life and this website. We were content to have fought the good fight, but we had lost in a religious and civic sense. Our only hope resided in the teenagers of this country who no longer flock to a gentrified Woodstock. The audience at Woodstock was there to assure each other that we were not lost in the desert of despair, but we would go home to that desert, and try to sleep if we could avoid the rage of disappointment in the current condition of a nation that appears to be imploding with suicide, poverty, and the triumph of blatant bigotry. We were too old to once more receive the blows of police truncheons and massive protest no longer appears to have the impact it once had.
We sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” yet we knew it was now the land of bigots and liars and corrupt profiteers of war. We sang in unity about love and fellowship with our great ambassador whom we leaned on, but we knew in our hearts that we were the few who were listening to a style of music that now lives in a library archive. Our land had always been a land of imaginary hope. The hopeful were invited to rise from their seats and sing from the stage. The fact that the Parkland students sang the other night at the Tony Awards is a hopeful sign of the resurrection of hope.