JUNE 1, 2017 – For over 50 years, Peter Yarrow has been on the forefront of the cultural and musical zeitgeist.
As a member of seminal trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow put America’s mind to music through such songs as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As a solo artist, Yarrow has continued to use music as a powerful tool, not just for entertainment, but for engagement and enrichment as well. From his popular series of children’s books to his work with Operation Respect (www.operationrespect.org), he has brought music and hope to children and families around the world, including in Israel, where he recently traveled with 40 other songwriters as part of a program that was developed by Seeds of Peace.
On July 15, Yarrow will come to the Cabot in Beverly with long-time companion and co-champion of love, peace, and brotherhood Noel Paul Stookey (the “Paul” in Peter, Paul and Mary) for a night of music and messages.
As he celebrated his 79th birthday, Yarrow took a moment to reflect on his life and legacy.
“My health is very good,” he smiled, “but the world is in desperate shape.”
Having been raised with the values of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”), Yarrow considers himself to have “a deep sense of responsibility” when it comes to dealing with the state of the world as he and so many others see it.
“I am active in doing a number of things that I think could be significant,” he says, mentioning his continuing work with Operation Respect, Seeds of Peace, and a new documentary he is working on that depicts a truly bipartisan group he recently helped organize in hopes of looking at and effectively dealing with the different opinions that appear to be tearing our nation and our world apart.
“The great danger in America is the division,” Yarrow maintains, observing that while we have been through “bitter” elections before, the difference is that, in the past, people did not hate and fear each other as they appear to do now.
“It is reminiscent of the situation that preceded the fascism that came to Germany and Italy,” he warns. “Then it was Jews and gays and Gypsies. Now it is Muslims and immigrants.” In addition to being uncomfortable, Yarrow suggests that division among people makes them less able to confront what are truly common foes.
“People are horrifically divided,” he reiterates, “and we will not be able to stand together if something dangerous comes our way. That’s the handwriting on the wall.”
In an effort to stem the tide, Yarrow helped bring together 10 Trump supporters and 10 Clinton supporters in a dialogue. The results (which he hopes to be able to share through the finished documentary in the near future; most probably on PBS) were, he says, stunning.
“Over a period of three days, with 13 hours of guided interactions each day, [the people] found that, when they had a vehicle for talking to each other civilly, the stereotypes that they held of each other were negated. They found that the other people were not extreme and that they were good human beings who wanted the same things for America. Instead of hating or fearing them, they reached out with great relief …You can see the transformational change where the people crossed that divide and became friends!” Inspired by the interaction, Yarrow is currently working to replicate it elsewhere.
“When I saw the result of that first gathering,” he recalls, “I saw that we needed to do it again.”
From his beloved Rotary Club to libraries across the nation, Yarrow is promoting his summit in a one-day format that he hopes will grow and spread like the hate and fear it is trying to combat.
“If we could have literally thousands of them,” he muses, “it could develop a certain momentum.” So while music may be the tool for which he is best known, Yarrow maintains that, like his hero Peter Seeger’s famous banjo (which claimed to “surround hate and force it to surrender”), the music is but one tool.
When asked how he chooses his tools for each given performance, Yarrow replies that the music is “secondary to the organizing” and that the venue often suggests the repertoire.
“My life has been devoted always in the sense that there is a path that was hewn by Pete Seeger with Peter, Paul and Mary following,” he suggests. And while he and his creative colleagues have set that path to music for many others, the path has remained the important element for Yarrow. Even in his work with Operation Respect (which was inspired by the song “Don’t Laugh at Me”), Yarrow says that the music is used in the same way as it was during the Civil Rights marches and other events.
Using social and emotional learning to create an environment in which there is caring and mutual respect, Operation Respect helps children recognize and deal with their often confused and conflicting emotions and to deal with the many challenges they face on a daily basis, including the growing scourge of bullies.
“It is used by 22,000 schools across the US,” Yarrow says proudly, noting that it is also in play in such diverse and often difficult nations as Croatia, Hong King, Ukraine, and also Israel, where it is used in 66% of all schools by students from across the religious and cultural divides that often challenge that nation as well.
“It is used to tamp down the fear and hatred that spikes when there is a conflict,” Yarrow suggests, noting that, on a recent trip to Israel, he was advised by former Ambassador Dan Shapiro that “the situation is heating up” and another conflict may be imminent.
“The more there is a conflict,” Yarrow explains, “the harder it is for people to see the possibility of peace because the lack of trust is so profound and the impetus for creating peace becomes diminished. This program has been seen to be productive in tamping that down.”
So whether it is used in Israel to mitigate inter-cultural conflict or in America to help downplay narcissism and materialism, Yarrow’s music and his message continue to have an impact. Looking back to his “hero” Seeger and forward to the generation of his children (including his fellow activist and performer Bethany) and the many younger people he has hoped to inspire to carry on the Folk tradition through his performances, books, and other tools, Yarrow remains dedicated to tikkun olam and to continuing to use music “as a powerful force to bring people together and build strong community, and assert our humanity together.”
Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey at The Cabot Theatre (286 Cabot Street, Beverly, Saturday, July 15, 8:00 p.m. Visit thecabot.org.