By Donald Liebenson
Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey—two-thirds of the iconic folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, return to Ravinia on Sun. June 16. The trio first appeared at Ravinia in 1963. This year marks Yarrow and Stookey’s 24th Ravinia appearance and the first since 2006. Mary Travers died three years later.
“There was an opportunity for us to come previously, but it was within the first couple of years after Mary’s passing, and the decision was it just felt so poignant that she was not there, it just didn’t feel right,” Yarrow said in a phone interview with Ravinia Backstage. “Now, the perspective is that this music does, should and must carry on, that it still has great meaning and vitality, particularly in this draconian time when these songs are the antithesis of the alienation in our country today.”
The times they are a-changin’, but in ways that are deeply troubling for an artist who has spent more than 60 years singing songs meant to unite, promote social justice and reaffirm our humanity. Yarrow, who just turned 81, reports that he and Stookey will be singing your old favorite songs from way back when, such as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”; anthems that accompanied countless Civil Rights marches and summer camp campfires.
But their concert is not an act of nostalgia. These songs, as well as “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and the former trio’s signature song, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” encourage audiences to join voices and sing-along. That, he said, is an act of breaking down barriers and walls. “I feel strongly that we have to resurrect our humanity,” Yarrow offered. “When you are singing along, you may be sitting next to somebody who voted differently or whose skin is a different color than yours. Just that very fact is an act of peace building, of defusing animosities. It’s magical. You can’t simply say. ‘Let’s just sing of consciousness and affirmation or ethical posture.’ You have to feel joy, you have to laugh.”
Peter, Paul and Mary were formed in 1961 by Albert Grossman, who was managing Yarrow at the time. Grossman recruited Mary Travers (“the intensity and the spirit she had was so powerful,” Yarrow reflected). Yarrow was familiar with Stookey, who at the time was a comedian performing across the street from the legendary Greenwich Village club Cafe Wha? where Yarrow was appearing. Stookey and Travers knew each other; he had accompanied her on the song, “Single Girl,” which the trio later included on their first live album. The three sat down for a half hour to try out songs.
“Within 15 minutes, it was clear there was magic in the air,” he recalled. “Noel was not a folksinger; he was into jazz, rock and roll and classical. He is from the Midwest and Mary and I were from New York and steeped in the folk tradition. But our three voices made a particular kind of sound together. I called Albert and said this is it. We rehearsed for seven months straight. We developed a repertoire to go to the Bitter End.”
Peter, Paul and Mary were made for their times. With the wounds of the McCarthy era still fresh, the Cold War heating up and the Civil Rights Movement in its infancy, the trio picked up the torch first held aloft by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and others and reclaimed folk music as an agent of social and cultural change.
The group’s debut album was on Billboard’s Top 10 for almost the entire year. Their second contained Yarrow’s ode to lost childhood innocence, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Parents will be happy to know that Yarrow and Stookey plan to maintain a longstanding Peter, Paul and Mary tradition of playing the song at the top of the set to engage children in the audience.
The third album, In the Wind, included Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and helped bring his songs into the mainstream. It went to No. 1. All in all, the trio earned five Grammys. In 2006, they received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
When asked to reflect on what a magical time the Greenwich Village scene and the initial folk boom was, Yarrow said, “If I were to ask you what you thought (made it a magical time), you would not, in all probability come up with the right answer. You’d think it must have been a thrill to be successful, to have a huge audience and to at one point have three albums that were in the top 10. But that would not characterize what we were experiencing. What we experienced was a dramatic shift in the culture of the country that was ready for the sensibilities we shared in these songs and the sense that we were the catalyst for the awakening of those sensibilities. That was the dominant mode of everything going on in our hearts and heads.”
Yarrow continues to keep his activist folk flag flying. In 1999, he founded Operation Respect, which promotes tolerance and civility in education. He has served as a guide and mentor to students of Parkland’s Stoneman-Douglas High School, the site of the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting, to create songs that would inspire action to stop school massacres. He considers this project a continuation of what music did for the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. “That music was central to binding people’s hearts and spirits together,” Yarrow said. “As Congressman John Lewis said, “the Civil Rights Movement without music would have been a bird without wings.”
Another initiative about which Yarrow is passionate is Better Angels, a series of workshops developed to combat political polarization. The first was held in 2016; 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters met in South Lebanon, Ohio, to find common ground. “That’s what we have to do,” Yarrow said. “To foster discussions whereby people don’t change their ideas politically but cease to demonize and disparage one another.” Yarrow produced a 50-min. documentary that is currently being screened across the country.
Yarrow is unbowed in the face of “the potential for an Orwellian prediction coming to pass,” he said. “Peter Seeger and Lee Hayes foretold it when they wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ he said. “If we don’t sing out, hammer out, ring out a warning, then our rights and our liberties will erode and potentially disappear. The song says that the tool for making sure that doesn’t happen is the love between our brothers and our sisters. We are at an inflection point where either the future will be dominated by a culture of fear or we will be able to resurrect a culture of togetherness and a sense of equity and justice.”