These days, there's a good chance that a young mom or dad will point at Peter Yarrow and tell the kids, “That's Puff the magic dragon's daddy.”
Maybe, even, granddaddy. It's been nearly half a century since Peter, Paul and Mary, the now famed folk trio, were brought together by Albert Grossman, founder of Chicago's Gate of Horn.
And soon after — in 1963 — they were performing in front of hundreds of thousands gathered in the name of civil rights on the National Mall for the historic March on Washington.
Yarrow, who turned 72 last month, is still touring. He will appear with Paul (full name Noel Paul Stookey) July 20 at Ravinia in “a tribute to Mary Travers and 50 years of music & friendship.” Travers died at 72 last September.
But more often these days, Yarrow plays the guitar at children's singalongs at bookstores that carry his “Peter Yarrow Songbook” series with its accompanying CD. His latest, the fourth in the series, is “The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Songs for Little Folks” ($16.95, Sterling). It includes words, music and a history of classics such as “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
It's at these smaller gatherings, of children and their parents, that the kids learn that they're meeting the man who brought them Puff the dragon (a favorite from an earlier Yarrow book). “The kids go, ‘Oooooh. I love that song.' Which is very sweet,” Yarrow said in a phone interview.
Yarrow sees these mini-concerts as a crusade, not unlike singing for civil rights and against the Vietnam War that were the essence of those Peter, Paul and Mary performances in the 1960s.
“This is a nation that needs to educate its children, not only their intellect but their hearts and souls,” he said. “We've become a nation that delights in seeing people humiliated. We see bullies in elected officials, bullies in corporations. … Children now see adults acting that way, and those are their role models.
“My feeling is that one of the things that can bring us back to being a nation with a full heart is to educate our children, and one of the aspects of their education is the arts, particularly music,” said Yarrow, who founded Operation Respect (operationrespect.org), where many of the children's songs can be downloaded for free.
Yarrow is still easily wound up on the subject of politics (against the policies of former President George W. Bush, rhapsodizing over the virtues of President Barack Obama). No slow drift to the right that often comes with age? “Not in the least,” Yarrow proclaimed.
It was almost impossible to get a question in as he monologued on the state of the world. But, finally, as he took a breath, he was asked how many albums he'd performed on. “I have no idea and no interest whatsoever in knowing how many albums are sold,” he railed.
“You get a real sense of what's important if you sing in a hospice, as I do. What are people talking about? Their jewelry or their big home? What really matters is not power, fame, money. It's who we love, who we serve.
"People want to be loved and honored, and it's all in ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"
Singing now, in his well-worn voice, “‘Why does the lamb love Mary so?' the eager children cry. ‘'Cause Mary loves the lamb, you know,' the teacher did reply.”
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