"Weâ€™re part of a long train ride," is the way Peter Yarrow visualizes the many events that have highlighted a career three decades long. With characteristic care, Yarrow places the success heâ€™s had within a greater context, seeing his accomplishments as part of a tradition, to be credited and carried on. "When I was in high school, I heard The Weavers sing â€˜If I had a Hammer" at Carnegie Hall," he recalled. "It was inspiring, and it showed me the extraordinary effect that music of conscience can have." That lesson was one which Peter Yarrow took to heart.
Countless vignettes illustrate the way that lesson has shaped the life of this artist and activist. His gift for songwriting has produced some of the most moving songs Peter, Paul & Mary have recorded, including "Puff, the Magic Dragon", "Day is Done," "Light One Candle", and "The Great Mandala". As a member of that renowned musical trio, he earned a 1996 Emmy nomination for the Peter, Paul & Mary Great Performances special "LifeLines Live", a highly acclaimed celebration of folk music, with their musical mentors, contemporaries, and the new generation of singer/songwriters. And along with that musical creativity came his commitment to social change. Yarrow produced and coordinated many events for the anti-Vietnam War movement, including festivals for peace at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium. These efforts culminated in his co-organization work for the 1969 anti-war March on Washington, in which some half million people participated.
Yarrow has been on the frontlines ever since the civil rights movement of the early sixties. Looking back on the contribution of folk singers during those days, he observed that the songs worked "as a different kind of rhetoric, one that could reach the fence-sitters." He hastened to add that the spirit which fueled this effort is very much alive.
"The ethic behind songs of conscience doesnâ€™t change," he asserted, "even though the issues are altered from generation to generation." The same pulse that energized the civil rights movement fuels the anti-apartheid movement, which is what his song "No Easy Walk to Freedom" is all about.
Many issues have moved Peter Yarrow to give often of his time and talent over the years: hunger, homelessness, the nuclear threat, education, equal rights. All have tapped his skills as both a performer and organizer. Throughout, he has used his music as advocacy. One can hear that in songs like "Light One Candle," which has become an anthem for the Jewish ethical legacy; Judaismâ€™s commitment to a better world.
"Most of my work for the past 25 years," Yarrow noted, "has been devoted to organizing demonstrations, benefits and campaigns, many of which have had the effect of bringing a policy debate to public focus or moving a political agenda forward. Itâ€™s become a clichÃ© to say â€˜think globally and act locally,â€™ but it works."
In 1982, Peter Yarrow received the Allard K. Lowenstein Award for his "remarkable efforts in advancing the causes of human rights, peace and freedom." But heâ€™s not about to rest on any laurels, or rest at all, for that matter. Yarrow remains committed to help others through his work with organizations such as Connecticut Hospice & the Guggenheim Museumâ€™s "Learning Through Art" program, which brings artists and performers into the classroom, through his opposition to Californiaâ€™ Proposition 187, which would deny education and medical services to illegal immigrants and their children, and through his support of Holocaust remembrance and education programs. In 1995, the Miami Jewish Federation recognized Yarrowâ€™s continual efforts by awarding him the Tikkun Olam Award for his part in helping to "repair the world". "I canâ€™t help but react to the painful realities of the two-tiered society we live in, where the signs of poverty and inequity are everywhere. Almost twenty five percent of our children live at or below the poverty line. We expect the no option life cycle of the poor to be interrupted by the weak social safety net and then wonder why building more jails doesnâ€™t solve the problems. We are doing this without providing the necessary training and child care for new work force mothers. With a policy born of denial we continue to widen the distance between the haveâ€™s and the have notâ€™s. We see the spectre of both the idea and the reality of "gated communities" all over America. We cannot allow ourselves to slip towards virtual apartheid. This must not happen to our country."
"And we are all", he added, "living with oceans that are no longer safe, and under skies that are no longer unpolluted. No naÃ¯ve response such as â€˜taking coverâ€™ under oneâ€™s desk, the way we did in elementary school during nuclear attack drills, makes any sense. Weâ€™re at a global saturation point, which is creating the impetus for new political advocacies. Such times of crisis have inevitably brought â€˜music of conscienceâ€™ to the fore and I expect we will be hearing more and more of it in the immediate future. When people feel empowered to come together and raise their voices, also will mean raising their voices in song as well."
Yarrow finds cause for optimism in following the model for change that sixties activism produced. "People may say 'What can I do? I'm only one person.' But we've proven that when we come together demonstrate, and speak our piece--there is no way the power structure can avoid being attentive.
"As an artist, I feel a synergy at work here," Yarrow observed. "Because when people feel empowered and raise their voices, that, naturally, will mean raising their voices in song. The emergence of artists like Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls is the handwriting on the wall.
Nurturing new songwriters is a concern that's been close to Yarrow's heart ever since he helped launch the Newport Folk Festival in 1962. He continues to work at organizing opportunities for new singer-songwriters to be discovered, such as the Kerrville Folk Festival that he co-founded 25 years ago. It was at this festival, in fact, that Michelle Shocked made "a virtual field recording on the campground" which became an acclaimed LP. "The recognition of new artists that are writing from the heart, " Peter noted, "is the most positive and energizing of musical evolutions."
Yarrow's creative output has been as productive as his activism. Apart from his work with Peter, Paul & Mary, he has recorded four solo albums, and co-written and produced the #1 hit for Mary McGregor, "Torn Between Two Lovers."
Peter has explored his talents in filmmaking as well, producing the critically acclaimed "You are What You Eat", and three animated television specials based on "Puff, the Magic Dragon." An Emmy nomination rewarded these efforts.
While Peter Yarrow knows that there is "No Easy Walk to Freedom", he's not about to give up the demanding path he's chosen. "We've lived through a time in which people have felt they could forge their own future and make a better world, he said. "We may not have achieved our dreams in the time frame that we once believed was realistic, but the magnitude of what is yet to be achieved only confirms the importance of our commitment. Knowing this, we can't stop now."
You remember when you felt each person mattered
That we all had to care or all was lost
But now you see believers turned to cynics
And you wonder was the struggle worth the cost
Then you see someone too young to know the difference
And the veil of isolation in their eyes
And inside you know youâ€™ve got to leave them something
Or the hope for something better slowly dies
Carry on my sweet survivor
Carry on my lonely friend
Donâ€™t give up on the dream
And donâ€™t let it end
Carry on my sweet survivor
Thoâ€™ you know that somethingâ€™s gone
For everything that matters