Peter Yarrow has been playing concerts since 1961, first with the legendary folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary and presently as a solo artist in dozens of shows nationwide each year. While he is pleased to have seen plenty of progressive reforms instituted in America throughout his six-decade career, he remains ever vigilant due to the fact that he fears the Trump administration is trying to reverse those changes as rapidly as possible.
Yarrow will be bringing his musical message to Caltech Saturday, when it hosts “An Evening with Peter Yarrow” on campus at Ramo Auditorium. Yarrow finds that rather than giving up, both his longtime fans and new generations of tune-driven activists are coming together to find both joy and purpose at his shows.
“The audience is as passionate as it ever has been, but in a different way,” says Yarrow, who still frequently teams with Paul Stookey for shows. “There’s so much fear and so much anxiety over the possibility of our democracy falling apart. We’re amid an expansion of progressive thinking, as I found while performing at Standing Rock and at the anti-fracking marches.
“I never stop writing songs about these things, but right now we’re standing at the advent of the coming of a time of recognition of women, their places in society and rise to power,” he continues. “We don’t only sing the Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire. We do those songs but also songs reflecting the immediate reality of our times and they’re received as warmly. It’s a cross between a party and a march.”
Born the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Manhattan, Yarrow studied psychology at Cornell University but began singing in public during his senior year while participating in an American Folk Literature course that was colloquially known on campus as “Romp-n-Stomp.” He began playing in New York City folk clubs after graduation, quickly drawing enough notice to appear on a CBS folk music special and earn a coveted slot at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival.
When music manager Albert Grossman told Yarrow he was seeking to create a version of the famed folk group The Weavers for baby boomers, Yarrow enlisted the fast-rising singer Mary Travers to join him. Travers suggested her friend Paul Stookey to round out the trio, and they quickly developed a following large enough to score them a recording deal with Warner Brothers.
Their debut album “Peter, Paul & Mary” sold more than two million copies and remained in the Billboard Top 10 for 10 months and Top 20 for two years. With songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” all becoming timeless classics, they remained perpetually popular on touring circuits for decades, and the spirit of those songs inspired Yarrow to fight the school bullying crisis starting in 2010.
“I started Operation Respect in 2010 because Peter, Paul and Mary were very dedicated to eliminating cruelty and bullying and disrespect everywhere,” says Yarrow. “Disrespect was the key word when you think about the reasons we marched. The civil rights movement was about a very virulent form of disrespect. For women, it was disrespect of their place in society, and the climate movement was born from respect of the planet.
“Children need to have respect, caring, and be surrounded by support, but emotional violence, not just physical violence, is pandemic today,” he continues. “This next generation needs to be inoculated against embracing a culture that has grown so devoid of compassion in some ways, of empathy, so focused on material things and greed. At its base, the challenge to us as Americans is not only to change policy but to make sure that in our hearts the goodness is dominant.”
“An Evening with Peter Yarrow” begins at 7 p.m. Sat. at Caltech’s Ramo Auditorium, 1200 E. California Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $10 to $30. Call (626) 395-4652 or visit Caltech.edu.