Singer brings 50 years of musical activism to Pacific

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Peter Yarrow, formerly of Peter, Paul and Mary, sings at Pacific University Saturday.In 1963, the famed singing group Peter, Paul and Mary performed “If I Had a Hammer” at the March on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. Fifty years later, the “Peter” in that group is still using music to spark social and political change.

“What the music does now is what it did in the March on Washington in 1963,” Peter Yarrow said Saturday. “I have been a part of movements that have changed the country from a place where our current president could have been chased by a lynch mob,” he said, as well as part of a movement that “stopped a war from the grassroots up. I know that if we can mobilize we can get back on track.”

Now 74, Yarrow is counting on the passion and energy of young people, such as the students at Pacific University, where he performs Saturday, Feb. 23.

The tight-knit trio broke up briefly in 1970, but re-formed in 1978. Yarrow continued performing with Paul Stookey and Mary Travers until a few years before Travers died in 2009, after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Yarrow was recently in town to perform and to visit his son, Christopher Yarrow, who lives in Portland and stocks his southeast store, The Monkey and The Rat, with exotic world treasures.

Musically, Yarrow has most recently been singing for residents of Newtown, Conn., who were deeply traumatized by the school shooting there in December. The violent episode is one that Yarrow has been working to prevent for the last 14 years through his nonprofit, Operation Respect.

The man who performed and co-wrote the music for the popular children's song, "Puff the Magic Dragon," founded Opertion Respect to help children have a safe and nurturing environment in schools, free of violence and ridicule.

His program “Don't Laugh at Me” has reached 22,000 schools across the country. After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Yarrow was immediately called to perform.

“It was a concert where people from the community could have a source of comfort,” said Yarrow. “They could be brought together with a sense of mutuality — tears and joy and love shared.”

Yarrow said Newtown residents want their city to be remembered not as a place of tragedy, but as a place which sparked a national movement to change the country.

Yarrow believes it can happen. The legacy of the activism reflected in “Blowin’ in the Wind” remains strong, he said. “It's very clear that it’s not just nostalgic or an anachronism, it is a very vital part of our country.”

In the past five years, Yarrow has brought his songs to the front lines of protests across the nation, including several “Occupy” locations: Wall Street, Denver, Colo., and Madison, Wis.

He performed at rallies to stop hydro-fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline. He sang “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” at a protest the night before environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced in Salt Lake City.

“One of the tools that makes this so successful is the use of music to open the heart, just as it did in the civil rights movement, the MLK march on Washington,” he said. “And just as it does today.”

Yarrow sees high stakes in the country’s current problems, which he blames on a national “crisis of the heart.” With many singers more interested in getting rich than changing the world, with television promoting violence and casual immorality, with corporations profiting at the expense of the environment, “Failure could mean the crashing of systems in many ways,” he said.

When it comes to performing, he said, “It's not just entertainment for me.”

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