Peter Yarrow of the former culture-shaping Peter, Paul and Mary still sings, still protests, and still believes in music’s power to change the world.
He will perform a family concert in Portland at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at the Alberta Rose Theatre with his son Christopher Yarrow and Friends, including Laura Veirs, Blacque Butterfly, Adam + Kris (and others). The younger Yarrow, who lives in Portland, adds vocals and plays a mean washtub basin, according to his father. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door, and $15 for those 17 and under.
Expect to hear some PP & M classics, including “Puff, the Magic Dragon” that Yarrow pulled out of his repertoire to sing with grown-ups and kids, including his grandchild, this winter at Occupy Wall Street in Battery Park.
I talked with Yarrow from his New York City home about music and politics. At 73, with 50 years of performing and protests behind him, he’s still a guy to listen to.
What’s the definitive Peter Yarrow primer, and which songs are you likely to sing in Portland?
“Light One Candle,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” “The Great Mandala” (an antiwar song; it may be my best), “The Day Is Done,” “If I Had Wings,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for Mary (Travers, who was the Mary of Peter, Paul and Mary who died in 2009), “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer.” We can’t NOT do those. We have to do the asked-for songs.
Do you tire of singing those classics over and over?
I would if I were singing them to myself. The audience response keeps it from getting boring.
Will you have any new stuff at the show?
We’ll ask the kids to come up on the stage and have their photos shot with their parents and post them to Facebook. Hey, it’s a family concert and priced like that. (Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door and $15 for those 17 and under, with a free “Puff” CD. thrown into the deal.)
To whom and to what do you owe the most in your music?
Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Josh White, Burl Ives, not so much Woody Guthrie, though it is his 100th birthday is this year. And classical music. I studied classical music as a kid, played the violin. We always listened to the WQXR Dinner Concerts (on the radio in New York City where Yarrow grew up). The three B’s were big: Beethoven, Brahms and Bozart.
Who’s making good progressive protest music these days?
There’s an enormous amount of talent but a limited audience because radio doesn’t play things that don’t make money. The stations play the lowest common denominator. Still, David Wilcox, Buddy Mondlot, John Gorka. I’m 73. I don’t remember names well anymore.
What was the deal about “Puff the Magic Dragon” and its connection to drugs?
The song is not about drugs. There was a Newsweek article in the late 1960s. They called out “Puff” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was probably about drugs, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (that claim was fatuous as well unless you slow the music way down and have Paul McCartney sing it backwards). Spiro Agnew (US vice-president at the time) and the FCC were arguing that anything “insinuating” drugs shouldn’t be played on the air. They won’t play “Puff” in Indonesia. Still. It could be “Puff,the Magic Badger.” It’s a song about a boy and growing up.
What were your first impressions of Bob Dylan on the ‘60s folk scene?
Bobby came to Greenwich Village as a very focused disciple of Woody Guthrie, emulating him in numerous ways and adopting his way of speaking and talking. What started as a “riff” became a reality as Bobby became his own self with the cloak of the amazing Woody to guide him. (Creativity begins with imitation!) … He lived with me at one point. We’re not close anymore. Bad stuff happens.
Where are you politics these days?
Always progressive. I was a Jewish kid whose mother was a school teacher who taught English, speech and drama. What do you expect? (Yarrow was an organizer of the 1969 March on Washington and earlier, marched for civil rights, and later and always, protested for social justice and environmental causes.)
What’s on your mind politically these days aside from Occupy Wall Street, where you played “Puff ”?
“Puff” was completely appropriate. The children and my grandchild sang it and everyone around joined in, smiling and singing together. Occupy Wall Street was peaceful and filled with hope and love, very reminiscent of the spirit of the ‘60s. In many ways, it still is. …
What’s the most crucial political issue we face?
The biggest issue today is the collusion between big business and elected officials. It’s happening every day.
Do you think Obama will get re-elected:
I do think he’ll win. People know he’s been effective but they don’t want to give him credit for it. He bailed out the auto industry, is getting us better health care, dealt with military issues. There is great suffering in this country and everyone knows he inherited an impossible situation. But he’s a very, very savvy politician and he will prevail.
What’s most important to you as you age with more than 50 years of performing music and keeping progressive politics alive?
My whole life is focused around Operation Respect to create a perspective and atmosphere for kids that’s full of kindness and humanity and devoid of hatred. Operation Respect is dedicated to creating a caring, respectful school environment where children will not be plagued with the painful realities of bullying, disrespect, ridicule and youth/childhood violence. Our Don’t Laugh at Me program is all over the world and presented in the schools and music is a big part of it. … If there’s one thing that the schools need to comprehensively change its providing a full introduction to the arts. We’d have children filled with humanity and not preoccupied with material things.