One-third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter Yarrow sings as a form of activism, ever striving to create a more beautiful world.
Q: After more than half a century, you’re still making memorable music. When did it become a serious pursuit for you?
A: I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York — one of the so-called “Fame” schools — and believe it or not, I was an art student. It was an ideal kind of flowing, progressive environment to be part of — the most wonderful four years of my early life. Then I went to Cornell and was a fish out of water. Other than the academics, I was very unhappy there with the sexism, the racism, the status system, etc. But in my senior year I got an instructorship in English 355–356, a course in folk songs and ballads. Classes were on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m., and I was paid $500 — which at the time was 20 percent of the cost of going to Cornell for a year. On Saturdays, instead of a lesson, there was just a sing-along in that 350-seat lecture hall, which filled up and then spilled out into the hallways. The Cornell Daily Sun called it a phenomenon.
That was a turning point for me, because I saw those Cornell kids who were so enthralled by a cultural perspective of status and wealth and fraternities and privilege, but when they sang together in that sing-along on Saturdays, their hearts opened up. They were filled with a sense of humanity and caring. The singing brought them together. What I realized is that music of this sort, singing together like this, could be empowering and transformational.
Q: You’ve also been very involved in political and social causes, even appearing on stage with Martin Luther King Jr. at his March on Washington for civil rights in 1963. What are the roots of your activism?
A: My mother was a single mom with two children, a New York schoolteacher who was an immigrant from Ukraine at the age of 3 and a very, very progressive person. She belonged to Planned Parenthood when it was considered to be really radical, and was a member of the Teachers Union, which was really sticking her neck out. Losing her job was a huge fear because she was supporting us alone after a brutal divorce. It was her values and point of view that really brought me to the place I am now.
My commitment to political efforts and social movements was not a casual dalliance. My entire reason for singing became predicated on one thing: I’m there to bring people together with a certain kind of vision and a certain kind of dream, using music as a tool — and that’s the most thrilling, wonderful, rewarding thing I could ever do.
Q: Did a specific event compel you to launch your anti-bullying organization, Operation Respect?
A: It was inspired by a song, “Don’t Laugh at Me,” that my daughter introduced me to, and Operation Respect is really an attempt to create an environment similar to the one I experienced at the High School of Music and Art, where the humanity of people was so uplifted, with everybody sharing and thinking and supporting each other. And now our program is in 22,000 schools around the world.
Q: You have served on the board of the Connecticut Hospice for a number of years — since before your mother passed there. How did that come about?
A: I have a very good friend whose father was a minister there, and she asked me to do a benefit for the Connecticut Hospice. But first I wanted to visit the hospice. And when I did, it was a profound experience for me. The people who work there are like angels who float six inches off the floor.
I go to the hospice and sing for the patients, which I did every night that my mother was there before she passed. For me, these visits have the deepest spiritual value I could ever imagine. Something happens that’s so magical, that’s so unbelievable, because all ordinary constructs are gone. People are who they are in their most basic form. They’re not wearing their jewelry. They’re not talking about how much money they made in the stock market or their new car. The only things that matter are the things that really matter. The false value stuff just falls away, and all they’re interested in is being loved and cared about and being able to love. It’s extraordinary how beautiful and spiritual people are in that state, when they’re allowed to die with dignity, allowed to be free of pain and to celebrate this time as a great moment in life — not simply the end of life, but a glorious moment.
Q: Per the lyrics of the Peter, Paul and Mary song, “And When I Die,” do you truly not fear death?
A: That song expressed something the trio all embraced, but it wasn’t so much about not being afraid of dying. It’s saying that life isn’t just there when it’s there and gone when it’s gone. We are connected to each other, part of each other. Mary Travers is dead, but she is in every song that I sing. When I open my mouth to sing, you can hear her in it. There is something beyond what we understand that makes us part of each other. And that song was an assertion that we go on living in others; our lives are continuous.