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Where have all the folk singers gone?
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Where have all the folk singers gone?

At 80, Peter Yarrow’s activism and music keep ticking

Two troubadours, Peter Yarrow, at right, with Noel Paul Stookey.
Two troubadours, Peter Yarrow, at right, with Noel Paul Stookey.

During one two-week period this fall, folk singer Peter Yarrow — Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary — will travel from his apartment on the Upper West Side to give concerts with Paul Stookey (the Paul of the trio) in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and western New York. They have continued to perform together since Mary Travers, the third member, died in 2009.

And Yarrow will also spend several hours each week volunteering for a pair of social action non-profit organizations in which he plays an active leadership role. And he mentors young singers.

At 80, in good health, Yarrow gives no sign of slowing down.

Retirement? He doesn’t know what that means. “I’ve been struggling with the definition of it for some time,” he said in a telephone interview with NJJN. 

An unapologetic political progressive, an identified Jew who received little Jewish education, a musician whose voice and lyrics became the soundtrack of the 1960s for many men and women who came of age in that turbulent decade, Yarrow said he has had no problem keeping his music and activism relevant for members of subsequent generations.

His brand of music, he said, is “more important than ever. We’re in a dangerous period of time. I never say my music is just entertainment. It brings communities together.”

Yarrow, who will perform with Stookey on Nov. 1 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), said that he has turned the passion that energized him in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War era into support for a series of social causes. There were the presidential candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Eugene McGovern. Apartheid and climate change and Occupy Wall Street. “You name it, we were there.” And, most recently, bullying of young people in schools, and the increase in rancor in interpersonal relations in this country since the successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump nearly two years ago.

Yarrow said he now devotes much of his time to the work of Better Angels (better-angels.org), described as a “bipartisan citizens’ movement” that was formed in 2016 to bring together supporters and opponents of Trump for workshops and discussion groups to narrow their divide.

And earlier, in 1999, he co-founded Operation Respect (operationrespect.org), which has developed classroom-based curricula and arranged school assemblies in the United States and several foreign countries — including Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territory, and South Africa — to combat bullying by teaching about tolerance and respect for diversity.

At most of these events, he sings.

That’s how an aging hippie spends his senior years? Yarrow laughed at the characterization, but did not challenge it. Once an angry young man, bitter about the inequities he perceived in society, that part of him hasn’t changed. “I am angry” now, he said. “No doubt.”

Born in New York City to immigrants from Ukraine, Yarrow (original name Yaroshevitch, changed at Ellis Island) first thought of becoming a psychologist or interior designer. Then, after graduating from the High School of Music and Art, he enrolled in English 355-356, a course in folk songs and ballads, during his senior year at Cornell University. He noticed that the snooty classmates who came from homes of privilege would let down their guard and take part in the sing-along sessions. “Their hearts opened up,” he said. “Music,” he decided, “is going to be important in America. I’ll be a part of that.”

Back home, active in the Greenwich Village music scene, he teamed up with Stookey and Travers to become the iconic group that performed at the “I Have a Dream” 1963 Civil Rights march in Washington, won five Grammy Awards, popularized such songs as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” temporarily broke up while each of the singers pursued solo careers, then regrouped.

“I am convinced that it was our mutual sense of purpose that allowed us to stay together for almost 50 years,” Yarrow wrote in a long essay he posted on Facebook when he turned 80 in May. “Being 80 does not mean that I am relishing the time to reflect and smell the roses. The challenges we face today desperately need the kind of spirit that was shared, musically and in other ways, in the 1960s.”

Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American-Jewish history at Yeshiva University who grew up in the 1960s, said his contemporaries saw Peter, Paul and Mary “as articulating progressive views. We loved them. My generation will still listen to their music. The name has resonance.”

Said Yarrow, “All these years I’ve been walking in the footsteps of Pete Seeger,” the friend and folk singer/social activist who died in 2014.

Raised by his secular parents in the Ethical Culture movement, Yarrow said his Jewish identity was sparked by a visit to Israel during the first intifada 30 years ago. “That’s when I stopped being an inactive Jew.” Not a synagogue member, he attends Passover seders at friends’ homes, and High Holy Days services at Manhattan congregations like Romemu and B’nai Jeshurun. He wrote “Light One Candle,” which has become a contemporary Chanukah anthem.

Yarrow said three events in his personal life sharpened his sensitivity to the problems other people face: his parents’ divorce when he was five, which led to a three-decades-long estrangement from his father and his school teacher mother’s struggles to raise a family by herself; her ongoing depression; and his conviction in 1970 on a charge of taking “immoral and indecent liberties” with a 14-year-old girl who had gone to his hotel room in Washington for an autograph. “It was the most terrible mistake I have ever made,” he said then.

“I’m not eager to discuss it,” he said in his NJJN interview.

Yarrow spent three months in jail on the sex offense charge, and was pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1981.

In his petition for the presidential pardon, he wrote that it would show his then-young children “that society has forgiven their father … their daddy did something very wrong [but] their daddy has also done much for society to help eliminate want and inequality where he saw it.”

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