“Known for his songwriting, sound quality and commitment to excellence, Peter Yarrow, along with Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers, made up the popular folk group Peter, Paul & Mary. The trio produced such standard ’60s hits as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Puff the Magic Dragon”; much of their music centered around the social issues and concerns of the times, including war, homelessness, the environment, world hunger, apartheid and the Sanctuary Movement,” says the press release from his powerfully-moving performance last Friday at Historic Fifth Street School auditorium.
Sold out to an enthusiastic crowd, Peter charmed us with a magic that can only come from rare “legends-in-their-own time” Lions. His calm, gentle, loving, humble, playful, witty, authentic energy radiated all night as he played, shared historical stories and sang about 20 songs, to perfection, over a three-hour show. He’s 74, with enough focused energy to wear anyone out–not even taking a real break at intermission–as he hugged, cajoled and signed autographs with a sense of timelessness; and did so, again, after the concert for a long line of (some teary-eyed) well-wishers. I was blessed to get a coveted hug at the end of the forty-minute line.
Leading us in numerous sing-alongs, nimbly speaking lines before singing lines, in a vocalist breath-control feat few can pull off, let alone for a full night, he was a piper anyone would happily follow! When does he breathe? It was seemingly effortless as his crisp, resonant guitar never missed an embellishment or beat while leading hundreds of wandering-clappers and wobbly-warblers.
The sense of peace and unity, in that acoustically-perfect room, never waned, evoking cherished ’60s memories of peaceful protest marches rallied by these now timeless ballads (some of the few songs still inspiring new generations with a power infused with triumphant history).
“Music Speaks Louder Than Words,” a subtle lesson in peaceful persuasion, soothed the harmonizing audience. I couldn’t help think that if “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then memorable music is worth a thousand loud memories. Pure power.
Peter lovingly spoke of Mary and Paul – inviting us to “sing their parts” (a most ingenious suggestion to those who ever fantasized sounding like “them” during transistor-radio-sing-alongs) – but, “only on the chorus, please!” This evoked laughter since many immediately launched into all the well-known lyrics, instead of just the invited choruses, with their “inner” Mary Travers or Paul Stookey voices.
He jokingly retorted, “You recidivists!” (repeat offenders).
(I’m afflicted by SSAS too. Sorry, it’s simply unavoidable when you hear opening sounds from, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”) Luckily, I wasn’t the only one!
Then, we eagerly listened to stories of his “Operation Respect” anti-bullying educational campaign.
From Wiki: “Operation Respect… effort to combat school violence… brings to children… a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each other’s differences. Founded in 2000 by Yarrow…”
“The project began as a result of Yarrow, daughter Bethany and son Christopher, having heard the song, ‘Don’t Laugh At Me’ by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin… Since I have lived a life of social and political advocacy through music, one in which I had seen songs like Blowin’ In the Wind, If I Had a Hammer, and We Shall Overcome become anthems that moved generations and helped solidify their commitment to efforts like the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement, I knew I had just discovered a song that could become an anthem of a movement to help children find their common sensitivity to the painful effects of disrespect, intolerance, ridicule and bullying.”
“…Operation Respect developed ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ (DLAM) programs (which) make use of curricula developed by Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) of Educators for Social Responsibility… (and) …is able to disseminate the DLAM programs free of charge. More than 145,000 copies of the curriculum have been distributed… In 2003 Congress recognized the achievements of Peter Yarrow and Operation Respect…”
(Writer’s Note: “Targeted Individual” [Google that] bullying happens to millions of adults as well. These crippling, covert crimes have been escalating world-wide. An in-depth article about this phenomenon, discussing a few different anti-bullying projects, will be published in April.)
After hearing “Don’t Laugh At Me,” he shared a truly funny piece: The Colonoscopy Song (written by request of CBS and performed on TV). It had the house in giggles as he playfully made funny faces to the lyrics. Mary Travers passed in 2009 from cancer, so again the music has history.
Then, the moment we were all waiting for, “Puff The Magic Dragon” became a revival-like extended sing-out complete with audience members on stage. One 8-year-old boy sang his heart out and was so adorable answering Peter’s question, “I wrote that song 50-something years ago…how come you know it?”
“I don’t know,” he said in an 8-year-old way. Children are so precious.
The lyrics to Puff were written as a poem by Leonard Lipton on Peter’s Cornell college typewriter. Peter wrote the tune. They share the rights. The song was wrongly identified in Newsweek as covertly referring to smoking pot. It never was about that at all. Lipton’s lyrics were inspired by a poem, “Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash. A book about Puff’s story is a popular gift for children.
Then, the most dramatic song of the evening, “Great Mandala: Wheel of Life,” which refers to the “great circle of time in Hindu/Buddhist traditions” was emotionally introduced as “very difficult for me to play since it means so much.” The house was silent for five minutes, spellbound, by rich arpeggio-picked complex chords with Peter’s voice both trembling and strong. He introduced it as about a VietNam draft resister but the haunting lyrics lend themselves to all kinds of interpretations about standing up for your values against all odds.”
“If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” sent us all into SSAS once again, but this time singing all the words was encouraged!
Peter was born and raised in New York City and lives there still. Greenwich Village in its heyday was the foment of so many folk legends such as Peter, Paul and Mary.
As a little girl (born and raised in New York City), I would hang out the fourth-floor window, looking over an enclosed inner courtyard, and sing songs popular at the time, including “Puff The Magic Dragon,” at the top of my voice to hear them echo off four tall buildings! It was 1963. I was 9.
I would walk The Village with my mom on trips to Washington Square Park to listen to guitar circles by the score playing some songs I heard tonight, and others that are anthems today. I bought a mood ring, handmade apple-seed threaded necklace, beads, records, incense, poster-cards and other bygone gems that are still in my treasure box. The kaleidoscopic energy of that time stays with me forever, and in some ways makes me who I am.
Thank you Peter Yarrow for a hug and smile. I’ll treasure the photo. This was so much more than a concert: it was a reunion of familiar strangers united by music louder than words.
The Historic Fifth Street School is “a cultural oasis in a revitalized building that is home to an assortment of Arts tenants: University of Nevada Las Vegas Fine Arts Program, Downtown Design Center for the School of Architecture; Nevada School of the Arts (a music education organization); American Institute of Architects and the Las Vegas Cultural Affairs Division.”
Special thanks to all the staff and volunteers who make these wonderful events happen. I love New York, and I’m loving Las Vegas more each day.