Peter Yarrow: 50 Years of Social Justice… and Counting! – Part One

Peter Yarrow and his musical partners Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were pioneers in the urban folk movement, advocating for social justice as a trio until Travers’ passing in 2009. With the release of Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life, an accompanying PBS special, and Discovered, a new CD of previously-unreleased live performances, we are once again celebrating the legacy and continuing impact of their work.

Yarrow is a busy man these days, traveling the country to tell stories of Peter, Paul and Mary and meet the many people who have been touched by their music over the last five decades. But apart from appearances on behalf of the trio, he remains as active and committed to social change as ever, continuing the work through his charity, Operation Respect. In a phone interview last month, I spoke with Yarrow about his beginnings in folk music, the legacy of Peter, Paul and Mary, and the continuing power of music to change minds and hearts.

REBEAT: How did you get your start in folk music?
PETER YARROW: I taught a course at Cornell in folk music as an undergraduate, popularly called “Romp and Stomp.” And I had the epiphany that this music could reach into the hearts of the students there who were, in today’s terms, extraordinarily backward. It was all about the fraternity system and materialism, women were objects to be won for romantic reasons, and there was a huge divide between Jewish and Christian. If you were black, nobody would look at you unless you had a football and you were running down the field with it. Well, I found that this very unhappy circumstance reversed itself when I’d sing to Romp and Stomp. It was phenomenal, because you could sense how much these young people needed to find a vehicle that would allow them to feel the way they felt when they were singing these traditional songs.

I came from Cornell directly to Greenwich Village. I went with the idea that the music I want to be involved in is music that creates community — that reaches people’s hearts and mobilizes people for a more humane society. So I was doing a lot of singalongs then, and my role model had been Pete Seeger — the hero of every folk singer at the time — and the Weavers.

How did you meet Noel Paul and Mary? Was was the trio’s sound magic from the first rehearsal?
At a certain point, Albert Grossman [Yarrow’s and PPM’s first manager] approached me and said, “I think it would be great if you formed a group. And my idea is to get a very strong female singer — strong in the sense of not having a wispy voice — and then a comedian,” and that’s what Noel was at the time.

When I saw Mary’s photograph, I said to Albert, “Who is that?” and he said, “That’s Mary Travers. It’d be great if you could get her to work.” So I went over to Mary’s apartment on MacDougal Street, and we sang a bit. It was something, but it wasn’t startling at all. But she already knew Noel; he’d accompanied her at the Gaslight on a couple of songs. So we went to his loft in the Lower East Side. You gotta believe it was grungy as all get-out, just getting up the stairs was an obstacle course. We sang together, and it was magic immediately. It wasn’t just the meeting of voices; it was the meeting of the human beings behind the voices. And it had a profound effect, and I was sure that was it. I called Albert and we started rehearsing; seven months later, we opened at the Bitter End. Three days later you couldn’t get a ticket, and the rest is history.

Folk music’s popularity skyrocketed in the early ’60s, and Peter, Paul and Mary went from singing in coffeehouses in 1961 to being a huge part of the historic March on Washington just two years later. Why do you think that happened so fast?
I think the United States was ready for something that reached peoples’ hearts and could bind them together to support an effort that was disastrously overdue, the Civil Rights movement. And so there was a confluence of grassroots awareness of not only the need for the nation to address racism, but the need to rid ourselves of the conventional kind of cultural realities that we would now consider so backward. The way in which people communicated had a certain kind of ritual of propriety rather than authenticity of feeling and immediate ability to speak one’s heart. Compared to the era in which we currently live, it was the dark ages, where authenticity just didn’t exist in the way it does now.

If any group personified authenticity, it was Peter, Paul and Mary. You had such an unwavering dedication to the music and to your chosen causes, and that passion came through every time you played together. How did you maintain your commitment to the work and to each other?
We had inherited that legacy from the Weavers, and Pete Seeger, and folk songs. Mary and I were both very passionate, politically progressive people. Noel did not come from that tradition, but he went along and identified with what we cared about and ultimately found his language of that kind of perspective and advocacy. Which, in his case, emanated from the world of his religion and spiritual commitment.

The new book [Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life] captures this passion so well through stories and photos of the trio throughout the years. How did you choose from 50 years of images?
Actually, the person who curated the photographs — we collected hundreds and hundreds — was Martha Hertzberg. She’s the manager of PPM, and she continues to manage anything related to PPM, which consists of Noel Paul, me, and Mary’s estate. She’s wonderful, and she’s gifted, and she’s sensitive.

The book’s narrative is credited to “Peter, Paul and Mary;” a single entity that speaks as one, rather than three distinct voices. How did you incorporate all three perspectives into one, especially since the book began after Mary’s passing?
The way that we would always function is that we would have the process of consensus, whereby any time something emanated from the group, we all felt that we were represented. And Mary, who was a voracious reader and was in love with words, used to write op-eds, and essays, and poems. So we were able to really incorporate her voice, too.

It’s incredible to read the book’s stories about the opposition you faced from white people who were angry about your affiliation with the “negro cause,” everything from warning letters to a stink bomb detonated at one of your concerts. These stories really show how Peter, Paul and Mary’s commitment to causes made your experience so different from many others in the music industry. Did this happen often? And how did you react to it?
It was constant. There was a large portion of America that wanted to hang onto those earlier and very distressing points of view. And we knew that we were going to be opposed and vilified. If you’re inheriting this legacy from the Union movement, from the Pete Seegers and the Woody Guthries, and you’re young, you’re foolhardy, perhaps, and filled with promise. And you just go for it. That’s it.

What do you hope readers will feel after reading 50 Years in Music and Life?
I feel very good about the fact that the book really is as much about the era and what was achieved by so many people as it is about Peter, Paul and Mary. You’re seeing the era through us, but the era itself is remarkable, and it should give us some sense of hope. Because all of this was done from the grassroots up, had such a profound effect, and was so successful in so many ways. Somebody who feels apathetic or disenfranchised or disaffected — if they were to read that book, they’d say, “You know, a lot of that stuff could happen now.” And so, my hope is that in certain ways, beyond just telling the story of what was shared, it could be an inspiration to people to carry it out.

Continue to part two, where Yarrow talks about the causes that fuel his passion today and folk music’s continued role in impacting social change.

About Erika White 63 Articles
Erika White is simply obsessed with music and culture of the '60s and '70s. Her writing focuses on the Beatles and the incredible fandom that has kept their legacy growing for five decades and counting. Erika is also a graphic designer, musical theatre geek, rabid Whovian, and Anglophile who lives in the NYC metro area. Check out her Beatles website and follow her on Twitter.