If Cornell University — or at least certain members of its faculty — had been a bit more traditional in their approach to education, there might never have been a Peter, Paul and Mary.
That’s according to Peter Yarrow, a member of the iconic American folk trio, who might have gone into the field of market research if not for his ability to sing, play the guitar and if necessary, quickly produce a tune and some lyrics to go with it.
“I was a senior at Cornell, in a folk music class with grad students, and it started out as an easy way to get an A,” remembered Yarrow, who will be performing Friday and Saturday at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. “That’s when I realized that music could be transformational. This class was held in the largest lecture hall on the Cornell campus, and there were so many people auditing the class, hundreds of them, that a lot of people were outside listening to us and singing along. That’s when the idea first came to me, ‘Hey, I might be able to do something in this area.’ “
In 1961, less than two years after professor Harold Thompson and his graduate class helped foster the protest movement on American college campuses, Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were performing in Greenwich Village as a trio. In 1962, they recorded a song written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes, “If I Had a Hammer,” and the song vaulted to No. 10 on the U.S. charts. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, with songs written by Bob Dylan (including “Blowin’ in the Wind”), Yarrow (“Puff, the Magic Dragon”) and Stookey (“The Wedding Song”), Peter, Paul and Mary became one of the top musical acts in U.S. history.
The trio disbanded in 1970 and came back together in 1978. They performed together sporadically until Travers’ death in 2009, and Yarrow and Stookey still perform as a duo on occasion. Yarrow, now 80, talked to The Gazette last week about his long career as a performer and activist.
Q: How often are you performing these days?
A: I’m constantly performing, but not in the same way I used to. A lot of what I do today is for Operation Respect, a nonprofit I started to fight bullying in schools. I’m also working on a project called “The Better Angels of our Nature,” which is about getting Democrats and Republicans together. It’s not that hard. There’s not that much that separates us. I’m also working on an album with other musicians performing songs written by the students from the Parkland massacre. We’re trying to help mend a few broken hearts. So I do a lot of special events where there might not be a huge crowd. It might just be 20 people I’m performing for, but they’re very critical people who can help fund Operation Respect and other projects I’m working on.
Q: When you first got together with Stookey and Travers and started rehearsing, did you realize you were creating something special.
A: It was undeniably magic. No matter which one of us took the lead it sounded great. I think when you’re very young, you’re always optimistic, so I thought we did have something special. And, we were all so committed politically. Mary had already recorded with Pete Seeger, Noel was from the Midwest, so he caught on quickly and adapted to us, and we all had a vision.
Q: Was there ever any romance between Travers and either you or Stookey?
A: She was beautiful, but very shy, and we were always pursuing our mission. There’s always some pressures when you’re performing with a group, but we never had any romantic feeling about her. That was one of our boundaries and we stuck to it. I don’t think we would have lasted if there had been any shenanigans.
Q: How did you get connected to Bob Dylan?
A: He was in the village when we were there, and he was an emulator of Woody Guthrie, doing some traditional songs and then writing some of his own. He was a genius. He is a genius. These incredible pieces would just pop out of him. Our manager, Albert Goodman, asked me, “What do you think about him?” I told him and he took Bob on. He actually lived with me for a while in Woodstock in 1963. I don’t understand or love everything he’s done, but he is an unbelievable genius.
Q: Was your music always culturally relevant?
A: Even back at Cornell, I knew that this music was going to be a force for changing our culture, and I wanted to be a part of it. That’s why I went to Greenwich Village instead of a job in market research. We’re not so much about entertainment. Our music is more about creating community, and that’s why it’s still so relevant today. We’re trying to bring people together. Maybe we didn’t vote for the same person, but we can still be friends. We can still lift our voices in spirit. That’s how we help bridge the gaps in our society.
Q: What will your performance consist of at Caffe Lena?
A: It will be part concert, part party and part peace march. It will be informative, but I will do a few songs from the Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire. I will do “Blowin’ in the Wind” and I always do a sing-a-long, without exception. We’re going to have fun, but it might also be a night where some people walk out feeling a little ticked off. I made them feel something they haven’t felt in a while.
WHERE: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $60-$30
MORE INFO: Visit www.CaffeLena.org or call 1-800-838-3006
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