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Legendary folk singer Peter Yarrow is still raising the hammer of awareness, love and justice

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Yarrow has continued to fight for an array of issues

By Ruthanne Johnson

When Kate Myers called the famed folk singer Peter Yarrow, she had planned on asking for just a couple of signed music CDs for a silent auction to benefit Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare. Myers volunteers for the Colorado nonprofit aimed at snuffing out puppy mills. “I thought, ‘I’m sure he likes dogs,’” she recalls.

Myers has known Yarrow since the late 1960s, since meeting him during autograph signings and picture taking after a couple of Peter, Paul and Mary concerts. “We hit it off and just kept in touch on and off over the years,” Myers says.

For those of you not old enough to remember, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded such songs as “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The legendary trio is also well known for their social-justice activism. Their iconic performances of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom solidified their place in history.

Yarrow has continued to fight for an array of issues, from women’s rights to anti-bullying. He’s written four children’s books with 12 songs in them. Most recently, he’s become involved with Better Angels, an organization that holds workshops across the country to peacefully engage individuals from all sides of the political spectrum.

Yarrow, who sang in Boulder recently at a fundraiser for Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare, says that cruelty to animals shows a deeply troubled society. His own dog, Harvey, was rescued from a painful life as a street dog in Egypt. (Photo courtesy Tony Arancio)

Turns out, Myers’ hunch was right. Yarrow likes dogs. His significant other had volunteered for the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and her involvement brought into Yarrow’s scope the issues of pet overpopulation and euthanasia in shelters. The couple’s dog, Harvey, was rescued from Egypt, where he’d suffered horrible abuse as a street dog. “He was deeply traumatized,” Yarrow says. “Part of his paw and his leg had been cut off with a machete.”

So Yarrow offered Myers more than the two CDs she’d asked for. “He said, ‘Well, why don’t I just do a concert for you?’” the Boulder resident excitedly remembers.

Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare is a relatively young nonprofit, Myers says, founded by a group of animal lovers who wanted to combat puppy mills and puppy-mill pet stores. The group helps educate the public, legislators and the media about unethical dog breeders and their connections to pet stores, Internet puppy sales and “parking lot” puppy sales. It holds rallies and coordinates media campaigns and peaceful protests.

Yarrow attended one of those rallies outside a pet store in Fort Collins and sang many Peter, Paul and Mary songs. This August, he performed for a crowd of nearly 300 fans at Boulder’s First Congregational Church. He sang older songs, and newer ones like “Don’t Laugh at Me,” which he describes as essential to the anti-bullying movement. The event raised $10,000 for Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare.

Animal cruelty is representative of a deeply troubled society, Yarrow says. “This issue is by implication much larger than the welfare of puppies. It’s about how we treat each other, which is reflected in the way we treat animals. I feel that what I have to say and what I have to do are needed more now than ever before. It’s a desperate time in our country.”

In the following interview with Ruthanne Johnson, Yarrow talked about his career, his passion for social justice and what’s ahead:

H&G: What are your best memories of Peter, Paul and Mary?
Peter Yarrow: When I remember that almost entirely musical events brought about the turning point in opposition to the Vietnam War. You realize how powerful that experience is and was, and still can be. I remember the pro-choice march [in 1989]. I rewrote the verses to “Which Side Are You On” and Mary [Travers] sang, “I’m not pro-abortion. I’m pro-choice here today, and I am protecting the Constitution of the USA. Which side are you on? Which side are you on?”

Historically, yes, we sang for the Queen of England. Yes, we sang for the White House, but those experiences—however colorful—pale in comparison to the experiences when we sang in those other environments.

H&G: Every time I see that video of Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Washington, D.C., I get goosebumps. That must have been a powerful moment.
PY: It was transformational. It was an epiphany. We learned that ordinary people standing together with their hearts connected and their efforts united can change the course of history.

H&G: What inspired your passion for social justice?
PY: A lot of that came from my mother, who was extremely progressive. She was a supporter of Henry Wallace and a member of the teachers’ union, which was considered to be very left-wing. She was a member of Planned Parenthood from its inception. Her values were not only what she espoused, they were what she lived. I grew up listening to folk and classical music. And not unexpectedly it was Pete Seeger who became my hero when I was in high school.

Left to right: Noel (Paul) Stookey, Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow met in Greenwich Village and first performed as Peter, Paul and Mary in 1961. Their debut album stayed on the Billboard charts for three-and-a-half years. “Music in the ’60s was the soundtrack of activism and conscience,” Yarrow says. Today, protest music is still alive, but not a big part of the music industry. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia.org)

H&G: How do you think the songs you sang shaped you as a person?
PY: I feel enormously empowered having been a part of so many social-justice and peaceful events over the last 50-some years. I also feel capable of taking on big challenges. That empowerment comes from the experience of singing the songs and living the message and seeing what it’s like to be surrounded by a quarter-of-a-million people who are singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer” back to you.

H&G: In the ’60s and ’70s, music was a tool of social change. Do you still see that today?
PY: Of course. But it’s not front and center. You’re not going to hear folk music at the top of the charts because the music field has become so commodified. Music in the ’60s was the soundtrack of activism and conscience. You probably couldn’t tell me who wrote the next “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the last 20 years. But these songs are being written. I know many of the writers. They aren’t being published or promoted by the music industry. But if you go to Occupied or Standing Rock, if you go to the climate marches, you’ll hear the old music and you’ll hear the new songs.

H&G: What inspired you to found Operation Respect in 1999?
PY:It was the song “Don’t Laugh at Me” [recorded in 1998 by American country music artist Mark Wills]. My mother was a schoolteacher and I was keenly aware at the time that the heart and humanity of the students was eroding. And this was pre-Columbine. When I heard this song, “Don’t Laugh at Me,” which is the name of Operation Respect’s classroom program, I knew I was listening to the “We Shall Overcome” or the “Blowin’ in the Wind” song for the anti-bullying movement. The effort is about creating classrooms that are filled with love, appreciation and togetherness. Bullying is not a cause. It’s a symptom of a dysfunctional society, whether it’s a child’s or an adult’s world. You have to address that by engaging everybody.

H&G: What do you hope to accomplish with Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare?
PY: It’s like with any political benefit, civil rights or anti-war effort. You alert people to the issue and raise money so that you can mobilize more demonstrations, gatherings and publishing of things, and maintain a website to help raise people’s awareness. People have to hear about it first. They aren’t born with that information.

H&G: What’s next?
PY: I’m involved with Better Angels, and I still have Operation Respect. I am working harder than I ever have in my life. The platform I have to share is very special. I feel compelled to utilize it. I am not considering in any way backing off.