Speaking to Peter Yarrow offers quite an experience. I had prepared questions, yet they went out the window the moment we began talking. Peter brims with precise memories, song lyrics, cultural observations, recollections of who said what fifty years ago, and a genial view of the world with hopeful eye toward transforming life and culture through the healing power of song.
KM: Hello, Peter, I’m happy to talk at last to one of my teenage heroes.
PY: Well, I’d happy to speak with you.
KM: I first heard you perform was in 1963 at my Long Island high school on the cusp of a tumultuous era involved with social protest and youthful optimism. The current cultural atmosphere does not appear to be focused on love or peace. Do you see the Florida Parkland students capable of igniting an optimistic social movement for change?
PY: As fate would have it, something just happened. The CEO of Young & Rubicam, the international advertising agency, just put me in contact with singer David Broza, the troubadour of peace in the Middle East. The idea was to meet students at Parkland and write songs with them. I flew down and stayed in the house of a student. I did a class with 15 students on the background of the relationship of folk song to social movements back in the late sixties and early seventies. Congressman John Lewis said at the 50th Anniversary of Selma that “The Civil Rights Movement without song would be like a bird without wings.” The students embraced the idea of music and social movement. Two weeks later we went down to conduct song writing workshops with the students. The idea was to have the students come up with the lyrics. David Broza, two spoken-word artists (one hip-hop and one rap), and several other songwriter-musicians went down (that was about ten days ago). The concept was to offer the students a variety of musical styles. There were 12 singer-songwriters.
Steve Seskin, author of “Don’t Laugh at Me,” who has been in over 22,000 schools around the world and who has worked with my charity Operation Respect, led a song-writing class. A student right-away came up with a terrific song title, “Song for the Silenced.” Students then worked on the lyrics themselves and the song really turned out really well. In a more general way I made the point that I hoped students would create a process for change in several ways: 1) Come to terms with the fact that the Emperor has no clothes 2) Stress the importance of public safety in civic life 3) Create an environment in our country and schools to resolve conflict in a non-violent manner without bullying, or humiliating, or degrading others 4) The re-connection of music with social movements will be the magic to connect diverse people—as happened in the late sixties and early seventies.
KM: I hope that works out well. What did the think of your friend (Bob Dylan) winning the Nobel Prize?
PY: I think Bob Dylan is a genius who changed the world of song writing by bringing poetry into song—he’s extraordinary in that way. I brought Bobby and Suze Rotolo up to Woodstock in early spring of 1962. I was 24 at the time and Bobby was 21. I had heard him sing in Greenwich Village and invited him up, so he could get out of the city. I was into painting (I had taken formal lessons since I was seven). I would leave my cabin, go out and paint, while Bobby would stay inside and write his early songs like “A Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and Blowin’ in the Wind,” which we later popularized with Peter, Paul, and Mary. Bobby fell in love with Woodstock where his later work with The Band happened. Bob’s manager Albert Grossman said that “Bob was too good not to happen.”
KM: How did Peter, Paul & Mary happen?
PY: Grossman suggested forming a trio that would have a wider circle of folk music influences than The Kingston Trio. We would need a good female singer and he also suggested a comedian. I walked over to Izzy Young’s Folklore Center and looked at the pics on his wall. I said, “Who is she?” Izzy replied, “She would be great, if you can get her to work.” I met Mary and we sang a few tunes together and harmonized well. She was very shy and retiring, reading a book a day. Al said “Do you know Noel Stookey from The Gaslight nightclub?” Noel was a comedian at the time. I asked Grossman to speak to him but Noel declined. Noel didn’t know any folksongs, so when I went over to talk to him we sang “Mary had a little lamb.” It turned out to be magical! We made our debit at the Bitter End in 1961.
There has been much serendipity in my life. I was invited to sing on a 1959 Robert Gerrish television folklore program. On it were: John Lee Hooker, John Jacob Niles, Cisco Houston, and Joan Baez. I sang “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” Back then recording was more open to artists. That’s not true today. I recently spoke to Taylor Swift about her last recording experience and she said it was all about the managers who think they know where the dollars are. She said they don’t want the artists to grow and do their thing—they don’t even respect artists. They are just interested in their own commercial ideas.
KM: You have a spontaneous sense of humor. Was this encouraged in your childhood or were you just born with the ability to conjure up a laugh from left field?
PY: You’re saying I do? I know that when I’m on stage I have the ability now to speak unscripted and be spontaneous. But in Peter, Paul & Mary, Noel was the comedian and talker. Mary wouldn't’t speak because Grossman told her not to speak, but a decade later Mary began speaking out on a number of issues. All of sudden Mary’s brassy New York humor blossomed.
KM: As you lived in your family cabin in Woodstock since you were young and are now perceived as an archetypal Woodstock personality and performer, what does this upcoming 80th birthday benefit concert at Woodstock Playhouse mean to you and the Woodstock community?
PY: The Playhouse was invented for this sort of thing. I worked there as a teenage usher. I did my first public concert there with Eddy Raven. The Playhouse is part of what makes Woodstock so special. Good music can transform a town—it had a profound effect on this town. I’m grateful for its history, authenticity, and as a place of discovery and artistry. It’s a bit like “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” Peter then half sings the last two stanza’s of Dylan’s song:
How many a year has passed and gone?
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I've never seen again
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
That’s why Woodstock is so precious: the place where so many family memories reside.