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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: October 1, 2015

Peter Yarrow is still singing out

Written by: Bob Keyes
collage_peteryarrow

Left: Peter Yarrow today. Right top: Peter, Paul and Mary in the early years. Right bottom: album cover. Courtesy photos

As a member of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter Yarrow was on the leading edge of America’s grassroots social movements of the 1960s. He sang for racial equality, spoke out against the war in Vietnam and rallied for a cleaner, healthier environment.

He and his peers led a generation of Americans as they stood up to their parents, government and authority to demand what he calls “more authentic and ethical lives.”

Today, 50 years later, he’s astounded that many of those issues have resurfaced in a political environment that fosters greed, mean-spiritedness, vulgarity and rudeness. America’s “black hole of empathy” is nothing short of shameful, he said.

Even more than in the 1960s, now is the time for music that raises the consciousness of America and holds its leaders accountable, Yarrow said in a phone interview. Now is the time for people to speak up, sing out and demand change.

On Saturday, Yarrow and bandmate Noel Paul Stookey will perform the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. The third member of the trio, Mary Travers, died in 2009.

Yarrow and Stookey play occasional concerts together. Yarrow lives in New York, and Stookey lives in Blue Hill.

People who attend Saturday’s concert will hear “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and other songs from long ago. There’s as much urgency in those songs now as when some of them were sung alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963, he said.

“This music is not just a phenomenon of the past. It is not a period piece. These songs have been around a long time and will be around a long time,” he said. “They are not an anachronism. They are the very proud legacy of a certain kind of ethic and commitment and a sensibility that we need to honor and continue. When I sing with Noel, I do not in the least feel any elements of nostalgia.”

Yarrow remains active in progressive causes and politics, playing concerts to protest drilling for gas and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In August, he helped organize the Black Hills Unity Concert in South Dakota, aimed at restoring the Black Hills to Native Americans.

The difference between the 1960s and today, he said, is there’s a strong and well-organized effort working against those who are aligned with Yarrow on various issues. In the 1960s, Yarrow and his peers rallied against authority and hierarchy in a general sense – against the government, against corporations and against their parents. They protested the status quo.

Today, there’s an active front protesting just as hard against the causes that Yarrow supports. That effort is well-organized and grassroots. It’s formidable and is embodied in the tea party and other conservative causes.

“Although the same forces for the progressive perspective are still active now, there are other populist efforts in the opposite direction that didn’t exist in that form at all in the 1960s,” he said. “Back then, we never even remotely would have seen the remarkable brutality and stupidity and vulgarity in a person like Donald Trump gaining any traction at the grassroots level. It would have been unthinkable and laughable. He is a bully and an obnoxious clown, and he has this extraordinary grassroots following that thinks he’s really the cat’s pajamas. There was nothing like that then.”

Further, in the 1960s, the progressives had music to embolden them. Concerts and festivals created community and rallied people around a unified point of view. Today’s music is more fractured and segmented.

Yarrow continues to sing. His strategy is not to try to change the minds of his peers, but to reach young people and teach respect. In 1999, he co-founded an organization called Operation Respect, which aims to transform schools, camps and other organizations that serve kids into safer, bully-free environments. The program is in 22,000 schools across the country.

He believes the respect is the bedrock of a functioning society.

“The imperatives of finding resolutions to these challenges are greater than ever, but the problems themselves all stem from something that Noel and I agree on, which is the ability to care and to love and the attitude of us rather than the attitude of me, me, me,” Yarrow said.

“We need to educate the next generation, as we do what we can with the adults. The basic task is to grow the next generation that has not bought into this cultural perspective that is so destructive.”

PETER YARROW AND NOEL PAUL STOOKEY

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
TICKETS AND INFORMATION: $46.50 and $52.50; 207-842-0800 or porttix.com

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