“Credit corrupts, and absolute credit corrupts absolutely,” said philosopher and folk singer extraordinaire Peter Yarrow on the phone from Telluride last week. And no, he wasn’t talking about his billing on an indie film. Peter of Peter, Paul & Mary fame was trying to qualify, without much false modesty, the peace award that the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) will bestow upon the trio this Monday, September 17 at the Victoria Hall Theater. It’s called the Distinguished Peace Leadership Award, and past honorees include Daniel Ellsberg, the Dalai Lama, and Ted Turner.
Yarrow is a bit wary; they’ve been honored before. “Not to dismiss or be disrespectful of the event, but if the purpose of it is to reenergize a community or raise money for the effort,” he said, referring to a variety of progressive causes, “then this puts an important perspective on the credit.” If it’s about “acknowledging goodness,” Yarrow continued, “it needs to be seen in the context of what Peter, Paul & Mary have stood for and been involved with for all these years.” That is, the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and many other social justice causes that have been raised since the end of World War II.
Yarrow acknowledges that much of their work was done for movements of liberation. “But if you think there’s a distinction between justice and peace, you haven’t challenged your own thinking,” he said. As Martin Luther King, Jr. came to realize just before he was killed, Yarrow continued, marches for equality went hand-in-hand with standing up against imperialism and the draft.
But why folk music? “Because this kind of music reaches straight into the heart,” he said, acknowledging the funny paradox that found 1960s progressives adopting a 19th-century song medium to carry their message. “It’s cross-pollination,” he explained, a mixing of contemporary with the traditional. “Suddenly when you sing it at a peace rally, the song is not a Negro spiritual anymore-it’s universal,” he said. “Especially if the person singing is living these principles; somebody like Pete Seeger. Folk music springs from people seeking to find a community. It’s not the same as somebody jumping up on a stage like Yehudi Menuhin.” (It probably should be pointed out, however, that Menuhin was honored by NAPF in 2002. But the point is taken.)
Yarrow, Noel (Paul) Stookey, and Mary Travers became nothing short of baby boomer archetypes. The trio was introduced by Albert Grossman-Bob Dylan’s manager-in 1961, when folk music was poised to become a national craze. And Peter, Paul & Mary formed their threesome in a conscious effort to create a folk group much like the Weavers of the McCarthy era. It took with a vengeance. The three holed up in an apartment and rehearsed for seven months, then burst onto the national charts within a year. Songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Lemon Tree” got tons of radio play, and the American folk scene notably affected English groups like the Beatles and the Seekers. But the two bearded cats and the blonde songbird truly hit it big when they decided to cover Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind;” a song that set campuses and transistor radios afire. They became iconic in a post-beatnik, pre-hippie age. “People don’t know it, but [ABC’s] Hootenanny had a blacklist, and we were on it, and Pete Seeger was on it too,” said Yarrow. Both acts did get air time on the more radical Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But the band’s real, authentic moments were outside pop mediums. PP&M most notably sang “If I Had a Hammer” at the 1963 March on Washington just before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
But after a half century, you wonder if they still like performing the old school stuff. “The songs to me are like children,” says Yarrow. “You love them all, though some might be your favorite this week and another later next week.”
Of course in a long career, certain ironies collide. Yarrow, who often refers to his “feet of clay,” once served prison time for a 1970s confrontation with a pair of groupies, one of whom was 14 years old. He was accused of a sex crime, for which he has publicly expressed regret, and was pardoned by Jimmy Carter in the 1980s. For what it’s worth, Yarrow is involved frequently in youth-advantaging projects. As this was written, he was filming a tribute to America’s teachers starring folkies like Odetta, as well as pop culture cynosures like Rosie O’Donnell and Sesame Street‘s Elmo. His Puff, the Magic Dragon picture book is currently a bestseller too. He also works extensively in classrooms around the country. “It’s important to break the cycle of otherness early,” he explained, “to embrace people and value our differences rather than to ridicule.”
He is willing to take some credit beyond the political work, though. After performing together for nearly 47 years, Peter, Paul & Mary still have a very relevant impact. “You know, we actually get it all the time. Just the other day I was at a Telluride event, and somebody came up to me and said, ‘My political consciousness began with “Puff the Magic Dragon.”‘ It’s very gratifying. There is a great yearning for kindness out there,” he said.
The trio’s career will be memorialized in song at the Victoria Hall event, which aims to raise money for and awareness of NAPF. Unfortunately, Mary Travers cannot attend, as she is currently recovering from back surgery. Yarrow also confirms that she has completely recovered from a battle with leukemia, due in large part to a timely marrow transplant. “She will be there as an electronic spirit,” he promised.
Peter Yarrow and Noel (Paul) Stookey will accept their Distinguished Peace Leadership Award and perform at the Victoria Hall Theater on Monday, September 17. For tickets or more information, call 965-3443.