A week after his 80th birthday Peter Yarrow will perform a Benefit Concert for historic Woodstock Playhouse on June 10, 3 pm. After their first performance in 1961 Greenwich Village, Peter, Paul & Mary became the most successful folk group of the decade. Their three-part harmonies were so in sync that audiences were gaga. They popularized work by Pete Seeger (“If I had a hammer”), Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and John Denver (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”), and helped magnify the singing careers of the latter two. Pete wrote the chart-topper “Puff the Magic Dragon.” They split up in 1970 (after producing 19 albums) to pursue solo careers. Their live 1964 In Concert album may be their single best recording.
Peter, Paul & Mary reformed in 1978 to play about 50 venues a year for several years. They were socially committed to improving society and supported benefits for world hunger, homelessness, anti-apartheid, disabled people, and other causes. Their real contribution may have been changing the lives of other people through messages of justice, hope, and reform. With Peter nothing has changed—he is still in that groove for what is just. Although Mary died in 2009, the group’s signature song, “The Song of Love,” still lives in the hearts of many.
And what will Peter play at this benefit for the Woodstock Playhouse? Who knows? But he will probably play some of the crowd’s favorites. My own favorite composition of Peter’s is “The Great Mandela (The Wheel of Life).” Peter knows so many songs by heart that it is astonishing. In this way he resembles one of his early mentors, the Irish balladeer Tommy Makem, whose nickname was “the man of a thousand songs” because (like his mother) Tommy knew more songs from memory than anyone could count. Peter is a living repository of memory, a walking and talking museum of folksongs and how and where they were made over the past sixty years. He is, in brief, a national treasure, and all the more to be treasured now when official leadership appears to be a ship lost in a storm. I just conducted a lively interview with Peter for our Features Page, which can be read here.
Peter has always been in favor of the principle that “the sum is more than its parts.” If he can move a stadium to sing in unity, he knows that that experience can be transfiguring for many of the people in the stadium. Part of Peter’s genius is to make easy-to-sing melodies unforgettable, something that is much more difficult than it sounds, or as the liner notes to Peter, Paul & Mary’s See What Tomorrow Brings reads: “the group’s message is the same as that of any artist through the centuries—a sermon of truth and beauty in the context of their times.” Yes, Peter is still a relevant man, perhaps even more relevant now than he ever was. You can purchase tickets on line for this unusual Sunday afternoon concert here.