(A review by Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery)
On Feb. 6, Peter Yarrow of the legendary folk trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, presented an evening of unforgettable music at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College in Toms River.
Engaging the audience in music and conversation from his first song to his last, Yarrow demonstrated how “Music Speaks Louder Than Words”; as the PP&M song by that name notes, music is “the ONLY thing that the whole world listens to.”
Teaching the song’s refrain to the audience, line-by-line, and inviting them to join in, Yarrow started everyone in the sold-out house on a unique journey that can only happen through folk music.
Once the congregation had listened, sung, and engaged in this musical dialogue with their leader — and with one another — Yarrow asked the audience to share what this first musical experience meant to them.
… were all expressions voiced by audience members, and Yarrow agreed, adding that, for him, singing with this impromptu choir assembled at the Grunin Center also brought him a feeling of …
Thus began an evening of singing along with one of the great voices of the 1960s as Yarrow encouraged everyone in the house to “listen to the voices around you — sympathetically — singing so your voice isn’t the most important one,” just like so many of us were asked to do by our grade school music teachers when we were kids.
And, speaking of children, as part of PP&M, Yarrow is not only recognized for creating and singing folk hits for adults, but is also world-renowned for writing the timeless children’s classic, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a song he claims has been used to represent a certain illicit recreational activity, but, in reality, was written during his college days at Cornell University to describe the inescapable “loss of childhood innocence.”
Defining “children” as “anyone in the audience under the age of 70,” Yarrow invited audience members to join him in singing “Puff” onstage. Even non-singers felt compelled to climb the stairs and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime invitation because, as one 50+ year-old “youngster” in the crowd excitedly proclaimed, “How could you NOT? It’s PETER Yarrow! And PUFF!”
Along with “Puff,” Yarrow is also well-known for writing other timeless folk standards including “Light One Candle,” The Great Mandala,” “Weave Me the Sunshine,” and many others — songs that, for some, have become so thoroughly ingrained in their consciousness it sometimes seems like they weren’t actually “written” at all.
Folk songs like these — and others written by Yarrow compatriots Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Noel Paul Stookey and so many more — can have lyrics that are stirring or uplifting or inspiring, or teach a lesson. They can ask a question or have a message. Mary Travers, Yarrow’s longtime musical partner (along with Stookey), once stated, “Asking questions — being able to ask questions; demanding answers — that is the essence of democracy.”
To Travers, American folk music equaled American democracy. And, to this end, Peter Paul and Mary’s ’60s-era folk music was the soundtrack to an era:
The March on Washington
The American Civil Rights movement
The Women’s movement
The plight of migrant farmers
More recently, however, American folk music has occupied Wall Street, been featured to highlight nuclear risks, and been used to bring about awareness of climate change.
Thus, folk music can still have just as powerful an effect as it did in the ’60s … when people raise their voices together in song. As Yarrow contends, with folk music, “we can take that sense of togetherness and turn it into ‘something else.’ ”
Ever the folk troubadour, Yarrow weaved stories about his days with Stookey and Travers as he performed such PP&M classics as John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)” — written by Stookey as a gift for Yarrow’s first marriage — and, in tribute to Seeger, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Whenever Yarrow wanted “to bring Mary into the song,” he invited the audience to sing or hum her part as he expertly added intimate harmonies above or below it.
Yarrow also made it a point to tell the audience about an endeavor close to his heart — a project called Operation Respect, an anti-bullying program he’s helped to put together that is currently being used in more than 22,000 schools worldwide. Available free to educators at operationrespect.org, this program encourages children to become peace-builders through music, notably through its signature song, “Don’t Laugh at Me.”
Whether captivating the audience with his story-telling skills, singing a solo verse to a classic song, teaching the crowd a new lyric or dividing the crowd into sections and directing them to sing at the proper times while strumming along, Yarrow reached the audience deeply and profoundly.
He was also charming and funny, singing about the woes of aging with his hilarious “Colonoscopy Song” or transforming himself into a young boy as he grinned and sang about baseball in Stookey’s heartwarming “Right Field.”
For the grand finale, Yarrow invited the Michigan folk duo, Mustard’s Retreat, to join him onstage. “I’ve still got a song to sing!” he proclaimed, and the audience knew they were there to witness something special as this legendary American folk musician performed “If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
Yarrow is double-billed with John Gorka at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Feb. 26; for information, visit sopacnow.org.
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