By Judy Oppenheimer
Baltimore Jewish Times - 04/28/06
Peter Yarrow is walking his dog on the far-from-mean Upper West Side streets of New York City and reflecting, via cell phone, on his life.
It’s been a long, and for the most part, deeply fulfilling trip. He still sings with the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — the group that gave him eternal name recognition, popularized Bob Dylan’s "Blowing in the Wind," and is today "the only group with international reputation of a major sort who’s lasted this long with original members," he says, proudly.
An educational program he created, "Operation Respect," aimed at teaching children to treat each other more kindly, is spreading across the globe. He is close to both his former wife and his two grown children, Bethany, a musician, and Christopher, an artist.
Oh, yes, and he insists he still doesn’t mind singing "Puff the Magic Dragon," the song he co-wrote and composed more than 40 years ago, which he has performed at least 500 kazillion times, as of this writing.
And no, the song was not written about pot — though it’s hard for aging baby boomers to hear it without remembering its supposed connection. (During a concert in the 2004 campaign, a Washington Post reporter spotted presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, thinking himself unobserved, rather unwisely lifting an imaginary joint to his lips when the song was played.)
All in all, life is good. Also, his dog, Zackie, a Jack Russell/ Chihuahua mix, a "rescue dog," he points out, is very cute.
In fact, at 68, Peter Yarrow considers himself "the luckiest person in the world. My work, my friends. I can’t imagine finding them more gratifying." He will be performing tomorrow night, April 29, in a benefit concert at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; money will go to Life Long Learning programs.
Mr. Yarrow’s interest both in music and social justice started early. Raised in Manhattan by a socially progressive Jewish mother — an early member of the New York Teachers Union — he was playing guitar by age 8.
At 17, he was in the audience for The Weavers’ famous 1955 concert at Carnegie Hall, which electrified him, a kind of vocal equivalent of tikkun olam, he calls it. (Unknown to him, future partner Mary Travers was also there.)
As a senior at Cornell University in 1959, he taught a folk singing class and realized that "this kind of music could serve as a trigger, a spark, to ignite another kind of consciousness. I felt folk music was going to play a part in the changing of America and the world, and that I could be a part of helping that happen."
Cut to Greenwich Village, the following year: a manager, Albert Grossman, spotted him singing at the Cafe Wha, took him under his wing, and announced they needed to find two more singers to form a group. They auditioned several, but when Mary Travers and Noel Stookey showed up, "it was magic — instantaneous." Noel became Paul, for alliterative reasons, and everything fell into place.
How have they managed to stay together so long? "From the get-go, we had a mutual agreement to be straight with one another," says Mr. Yarrow. "We weren’t pretending. We were real. We called forth the best in each other."
Was it always perfect? Of course not. "We all have feet of clay. It’s just like with any relationship, marriage or whatever." But they did try.
Another strong tie between them was their commitment to social justice. "We had a vision and purpose, we never compromised," he says. They were a constant presence at civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. "When the record company told us, 'You can’t go on this march, you’ll lose the Southern market,’ we didn’t give it a thought." (They did lose their popularity in the Deep South, too, as it happened, he added.)
Their fame was worldwide. But fame can have a price: any misstep is magnified. And in March 1970, unfortunately, Mr. Yarrow took a big one: he was arrested and convicted for what were termed "immoral and improper liberties" with a 14-year-old girl who came to his hotel room after a concert. He served three months in jail; 11 years later he was pardoned by President Carter.
Mr. Yarrow sounds a little sad, but clearly unsurprised, when the subject comes up. "It was 35 [actually, 36] years ago. You know, you make mistakes," he says. "You feel terrible about it, make your amends. In that time, it was common practice, unfortunately–– the whole groupie thing.
"Was it reprehensible on my part? Yes. Was it common practice? Yes. Does that imply justification? No."
Still, he can’t resist a little defensiveness. "In Washington, it was considered a felony. In New York, it would have been a class B misdemeanor."
What he doesn’t say but you can’t help wondering is, would it have received any of the same attention had it been Mick Jagger, or any one of rock’s bad boys, in that hotel room? Did his arrest, and the subsequent outrage, have anything to do with the fact that this was the man who wrote "Puff?"
At any rate, Mr. Yarrow believes he has paid his dues. "With the mean-spiritedness of our time, it gets hauled out as if it’s relevant. You don’t get a presidential pardon if you’re not doing great work, have paid your debts to society."
When he campaigned for Sen. Kerry in 2004, the story once again came up — one Texas politician even canceled a fund-raising concert. "The price I pay," Mr. Yarrow says. "What can I do, it’s part of my life. [With other people] I’m very sympathetic, understanding, forgiving, because I realize we all have feet of clay. Certainly I do."
His organization, Operation Respect, which grew out of a children’s program he developed called "Don’t Laugh at Me," takes up much of his time. He recently returned from Croatia, where the government decided to add the program to the school curriculum; it is already being used by schools in Hong Kong and Vietnam, along with 15,000 schools in the United States. Both Argentina and South Africa have expressed interest.
The program is based on the theory that the cycle of hatred — the wellspring of prejudice, of wars, of much of the evil in the world — can only be confronted, and hopefully squashed, in childhood.
For Mr. Yarrow, it’s all about respect. "In terms of our own Jewish history, it relates to what the Anti-Defamation League calls the pyramid of hate. The beginning of the Holocaust, of any war, starts with teasing and ridicule. Bullying. Ostracism builds to real bias, prejudice, racism, and hate killing."
To change the cycle, "you have to get to the children," he said. "They don’t jump out of the womb saying, 'I don’t like Jews, blacks, Poles.’ It’s up to us to give them the tools to interact compassionately, to resolve conflict non-violently, appreciate differences."
And that in a nutshell, he says, is what his program is about, "and what I’m going to be talking about and singing about."
Peter Yarrow’s concert will be held on Saturday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. Students from the day school will join him for part of the concert. Call 410-764-1587 for ticket information, or visit www. bhcong.org .