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SPEAKING WITH PETER, PAUL & MARY’S PETER YARROW

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BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN

“It showed me in the most powerful way, how it is possible to create an atmosphere of determination and unanimity of spirit, love and commitment...by virtue of singing songs.” Yarrow, now 75, is sitting in his spacious Manhattan West Side apartment, recalling Pete Seeger and the Weavers famous 1955 Carnegie Hall concert. This was also where the 18-year-old Yarrow met Mary Travers, one of his future singing partners, who passed away in 2009.

As part of the legendary trio of Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow enjoyed success with such popular recordings as “Blowing In The Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” "Leaving On A Jet Plane," his own composition, “Day Is Done” and “Puff The Magic Dragon,” which he co-wrote.

Yarrow is also known for his political and social activism. He is currently devoting much of his time to an organization he co-founded in 2000, called Operation Respect, which focuses on curtailing elementary school bullying.

He will be joined Saturday night by former partner Noel Paul Stookey (and supporting act Maureen McGovern) at Ocean Grove, New Jersey’s Great Auditorium. On Tuesday evening, he will headlining the Universal Peace Day Concert for A World Without War at Manhattan's St. John’s Lutheran Church, along with David Amram, Guy Davis and Spook Handy.

Examiner: When did you first hear about Bob Dylan?

Yarrow: We were both living in (Manhattan’s Greenwich Village). He was kind of a Woody Guthrie imitator, at the time. Albert Grossman, who came up with the idea of creating Peter, Paul and Mary, asked me what I thought about his managing Dylan. I said, “That would be wonderful.”

Examiner: You must have been very impressed by his early songs.

Yarrow: Yes. I heard an acetate of “Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right)” and “Blowing In the Wind” and just flipped out. We recorded “Blowing In The Wind” and it peaked in the charts the week before the famous march in Washington (in 1963).

Examiner: Peter, Paul and Mary certainly helped bring public awareness to Dylan.

Yarrow: He became someone who is extraordinarily revered and respected. His success would have happened, sooner or later, with someone else, but to be a part of that is certainly a great sense of personal pride.

Examiner: Now, a year after Peter, Paul and Mary had the folk-oriented hits, along comes The Beatles, and the public’s musical tastes changed dramatically. Were you at all influenced by them?

Yarrow: No, no, it didn’t affect at all what we were doing. The Beatles to me were personified by “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It was pop music that had nothing at all to do with Peter, Paul and Mary.

Examiner: Did you still feel the same way when their “Rubber Soul” came out, which was a very folk-oriented album?

Yarrow: I could see the influence of Bob Dylan that really changed (the Beatles) perspective. I don’t think they influenced him at all. Dylan is like Pablo Picasso, who completely kept reinventing himself.

Examiner: We just passed the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What remembrances do you have of marching with Dr. King? As marchers were being stoned, attacked by dogs and hosed down, did you feel any danger by joining him and the marchers?

Yarrow: When we first decided to do it, we didn’t know if we would be safe or not. However, it was all love, such profound love, just holding hands with people. It definitely changed the lives of the people who participated. It made me believe that human beings, ordinary people, have the capacity to stop wars.

Examiner: The assassination of President Kennedy occurred not that long after the Washington march. Did you feel many people’s utopian vision was shattered by it?

Yarrow: It had nothing whatsoever to do with the ongoing belief that we could make a civil society. If that atrocity had been done by a Ku Klux Klan member or a racist, the link could have been made, but this was just another wound in the hearts of people. It didn’t discourage the Civil Rights movement at all. If anything, it made it even more imperative that we go forward.

Examiner: Did the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. King frighten you from publicly standing up for what were then unpopular beliefs, like protesting the Vietnam War? I know, you and Mary and Noel were receiving death threats.

Yarrow: Well, we were getting death threats, but it was all part of what we were doing. We were young, and when you’re young, you feel immortal. You don’t easily get worried or scared. You just continue on. Let us not exaggerate the danger we felt, compared to the people who went to march in Mississippi, some of whom were killed. To start categorizing us in any sense of the word with them is ludicrous, compared to what the majority of those frontline people endured.

Examiner: Perhaps Peter, Paul and Mary’s most unusual hit record was “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.”

Yarrow: That song was written by Noel Paul. He was a real rock and roller when we met. He was not a folkie, and steeped in the music, like Mary and I were, but he adopted it and understood it. He was always very clever and was already a great comedian when we started.

Examiner: Do you really, as the songs lyrics say, “dig” The Beatles, Donovan, the Mamas and Papas, and rock music in general now?

Yarrow: Yes, I do. Indeed.

Examiner: After coming back with a number one hit, in 1969, John Denver’s “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” why did the group disband?

Yarrow: We were all totally exhausted. We needed some time alone and be reunited with our own lives, and be able to nurture our families and friends. It was a good thing because when we got back together again, the entire ride lasted just a few months shy of 50 years.

Examiner: Many people going to see you and Noel Paul performing now may wonder why you haven’t added a female vocalist, when Peter, Paul and Mary fans are used to the famous three-part harmony heard on so many of your great recordings.

Yarrow: There will never be a replacement for Mary. Peter, Paul and Mary was a unique entity. Noel and I have sung with my daughter, Judy Collins...but there is no more Peter Paul and Mary. When you now go see The Kingston Trio, it’s really a tribute band. I don’t want to be part of a tribute band. I’m the real thing. Frankly, for me, at this point, it’s really liberating, because what I want to say on my own, politically or otherwise, I’m completely free to not have to think about whether it represents a consensus position within the group. So, now my predispositions are free to be shared as I’ve done with you now.

Examiner: Do you have any upcoming recording plans?

Yarrow: I recently made an album in Japan that hasn’t been released here yet. There’s a song called “Never Give Up,” and it’s based on a poem by the Dali Lama. We met, and I was asked to create a song from it. There’s also going to be an album of never-released Peter, Paul and Mary recordings that’s tentatively titled “Post Script.”

Examiner: Your fondest memories of Mary, both professionally and personally.

Yarrow: She was amazing. She was charismatic. She was completely honest. She was very loving. She was very generous, totally irresistible in every way.

Examiner: What can we expect in Ocean Grove, Saturday night?

Yarrow: Some Peter, Paul and Mary songs. That’s what Noel and I do when we get together. It will be a lovely night. I’m looking forward to it.

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