Peter Yarrow bringing the power of music to Groton benefit
After a long conversation in which he focused on political tension and his post-election sense of despair, folksinger/social activist Peter Yarrow is surprisingly patient when suddenly confronted with an inane cluster of questions.
"Why was Puff a dragon?" he is asked. "Could Puff have been an elephant, or maybe a horse? Was it a syllable-count thing to fit the rhythm of the melody? Or was there a reason Puff was specifically a dragon?"
Yarrow, speaking by phone before his appearance Friday at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton, sounds a bit surprised by these queries, perhaps because virtually every question he's ever fielded about "Puff the Magic Dragon" — a huge hit Yarrow co-wrote for his folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary — concerns the omnipresent rumor that the entire song is a metaphor for smoking marijuana.
"I suppose it could have been Puff the Magic Elephant," he says. "I didn't actually come up with that particular line. Leonard Lipton (the song's co-writer) did. I wrote the music and half the lyrics, but Leonard added the dragon." Then, perhaps anticipating a follow-up about pot, he preemptively adds, "You know, we wrote that when we were seniors at Cornell, and there was no grass on campuses then. That all happened a few years later." He chuckles. "All we had was maybe some beer in the dorm or panty raids."
It's actually good to hear Yarrow laugh. During the bulk of a 30-minute exchange, while extremely polite and loquacious, he urgently discusses a variety of ongoing governmental and cultural concerns with melancholic intensity. There's plenty on his mind, and assuredly he'll address a lot of it when he headlines the local benefit for the New London Maritime Society that also features folk duo Mustard's Retreat as the opening act.
The presentation is officially called "An Evening of Song & Conversation with Peter Yarrow," and there's a reason for that. Frankly, it's not possible for Yarrow, now 78 and as busy as ever, to separate his art from his social activism and political conscience. So he'll absolutely sing — but he's also going to wax eloquent between songs about a lot of causes.
A multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning artist — both with Peter, Paul & Mary and solo — Yarrow is associated with some of folk music's most iconic tunes. Of material he wrote or collaborated on, in addition to "Puff," there's "Torn Between Two Lovers," "Day is Done," "Light One Candle" and "The Great Mandala." And Peter, Paul & Mary saw big success with their distinctive versions of Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer," Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," John Denver's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" and Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land."
A common thematic denominator in most of these songs is their social and political consciousness. Yarrow says, "There's a reason I went into music as opposed to getting a degree in psychology or working for a marketing firm. I grew up with the impulse to stand up for my beliefs personally but also as a member of society. I loved music, and the path taken by Pete Seeger and the Weavers showed me the way. They lived what they sang about. In my heart, I knew this was what life was about."
As a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Yarrow helped teach a folk music seminar and experienced a dawning epiphany over the course of regular Saturday singalongs.
"These gatherings brought out a heartfelt decency contradictory to prejudice, hierarchical disrespect of women, tension between Jews and Christians — all just by singing old folk songs about hopes and dreams. There was a palpable sense of togetherness that was inspiring to see and not ordinarily there," he says.
From the late 1950s, then, Yarrow was "on a mission." By the early ’60s, Peter, Paul & Mary rose, first to the top of the New York folk scene and ultimately became huge stars — an ascension that, not coincidentally, paralleled a distinct era of protest in American society. His earlier sense of musical inspiration and brotherhood was echoed when PP&M took part in the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, an event Yarrow describes as "transformational — an event that proved we can help change the course of history."
In the decades since, Yarrow has remained passionately involved in so-called liberal causes such as human rights, gender equality, homelessness, education discrimination, expansive health and hospice coverage, ecology and the environment. Not surprisingly, the recent presidential election affected Yarrow greatly.
"This is more than horrible, it's devastatingly frightening," Yarrow says of Donald Trump's victory. "The question is whether we'll be able to survive as a planet. People everywhere are traumatized by this election — or that's what I get from the concerts we've been doing. People are desperate. The only positive spin I can put on it is that basically the two-party system has failed to provide a egalitarian society. The political gridlock of the Obama years, in which everything he tried to do was pushed against every step of the way, was mind-boggling. The disrespect for him and the comprehensive attempt to destroy him and his presidency was unprecedented."
Of late, and in the context of the election, Yarrow has been very involved on-site at the North Dakota Access Pipeline protests on behalf of the environment and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and what they claim are desecrations of their sacred ground. The protests, he says, "are in part attempts to force America to come to terms with what we've done to a cruelly oppressed group of people."
There is also the ecological aspect to the pipeline controversy, and Yarrow says climate change is arguably the biggest danger we face.
"This is a situation that could put my grandchildren's future in grave jeopardy. The window of opportunity is so tiny; if we stand stasis for four years in the Trump administration, it will be absolutely catastrophic," he says.
Yarrow says vast meteorological changes are significant and undeniable.
"Even if it's not man-made — if you want to make that argument — it's happening. The hurricanes, storms, tsunamis ... let's say God dictated it. Don't you try to survive? Wouldn't God want that? Shouldn't we do everything in our power to protect the planet?" he asks.
But for all his despair, Yarrow says something good's come out of all of this.
"I've written a lot of new songs in light of recent events," he says. "So I'm looking forward to Friday. We'll do some of the Peter, Paul & Mary repertoire and some new things. We'll get kids up onstage to sing with us, and we're going to celebrate and demonstrate a sense of community and possibility."
'An Evening of Song & Conversation with Peter Yarrow'
What: "An Evening of Song & Conversation with Peter Yarrow" to benefit the New London Maritime Society
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: UConn Avery Point Auditorium, 1084 Shennecossett Road, Groton
How much: $35; tickets only available in advance
More info: (860) 447-2501, brownpapertickets.com, nlmaritimesociety.org