“The Road To ARISE” is a series of conversations writer Brian Turk will be having with ARISE Festival Artists. It is presented by ARISE Music Festival, Oskar Blues Brewery, Listen Up Denver, The Marquee Magazine and Harmony Yoga.
Road to ARISE Part 5 – Peter Yarrow
American folk music has always been around, but the genre we consider “folk music” took shape in the early 1960’s. One of the groups that defined the folk music genre as we know it was Peter, Paul and Mary. The trio was put together by manager Albert Grossman in 1961, who also started managing folk singer Bob Dylan the following year; the folk explosion happened around those two bands. The nearly fifty year career of Peter, Paul and Mary not only brought them extraordinary success with the Peter Yarrow penned hit “Puff The Magic Dragon”, or John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, but also brought them close to the front lines of many political and social movements along the way. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary took some time to chat about the beginnings of folk, the band’s commitment to inspiring change, and what Yarrow is currently focusing on at the wise age of 76.
The genre of folk music was taking shape a decade before Peter, Paul and Mary, but the fire in the folk scene was quelled by The McCarthy Era political oppression that our country suffered. Folk has always had a message to convey, and in the early 1950’s the message of artists like Pete Seeger and The Weavers and Woody Guthrie rubbed some Americans the wrong way, and made them see red. Communism was a dirty word in the American vocabulary at that time, and those who were thought to be Communist Party members, or people who associated with Communist Party members in any way were being questioned and punished. The blacklisting of artists, musicians, and writers based on their association with the Communist Party began in the early 1950’s and continued into the early 1960’s, stopping folk music in its tracks. Yarrow explains, “ Pete Seeger and The Weavers and other folk singers, writers, and artists were blacklisted. They refused to answer questions about their affiliation with the Communist Party and they refused to give names. If they gave names, they would have been left alone. It was blackmail in an extreme form, and one of the darkest periods of American political history. Just the day before yesterday, we had a huge event for Pete Seeger at Lincoln Center, and everyone really acknowledged and celebrated the fact that Pete was the one who showed the way. Not just because of the music, but because of the way he courageously stuck up for what he believed in. It’s kind of ironic. His ethic was one of the greatest integrity, despite enormous injury to himself, his life, and his career.”
Once Peter, Paul and Mary came on the scene, the intensity of the red scare lessened, and blacklisted artists began performing and recording again. Even though the Peter, Paul and Mary presentation sounded as American as apple pie, there was still a meaningful message of change coming through. Folk music was so much more than the notes being played. “No, it was not entertainment per se”, shared Yarrow, “It was the exploration of life in all its forms, and a very important part of that was the exploration of hopes and dreams and aspirations of ordinary people, not necessarily of stars, the elite, or wealthy people. Folk music was the dominant music in the early 1960’s. It was only dislodged from being the dominant music on the charts when The Beatles came. Then The Beatles slowly evolved into a band that played music beyond “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and incorporated the kind of philosophical depth that was emulative of what we were sharing in the folk field. So, in a sense, rock and roll as it evolved, was in many cases dramatically affected by folk music. Particularly, it was Bob Dylan who had the effect because his music was poetry, and his songs were poetry.
Both Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary began working with Albert Grossman within a year of each other, but Peter, Paul, and Mary began climbing the charts immediately. It took folks a little longer to warm up to Dylan. “Bobby’s great success followed the period of the dominance of folk music” explained Yarrow, “More like when Blonde on Blonde came out (1966). Our first album came out in 1962 and remained in the Top Ten for ten months, in the Top Twenty for two years and sold more than two million copies. I mean we had a ridiculous amount of success.”
Peter, Paul and Mary were at the top of the music game in the early 60’s, and they also were highly involved in the political and social issues that were shaping our country, including the Civil Rights movement. Yarrow gave some insight on just how involved they were, “First we performed at the March on Washington in 1963, and in 1965 we performed at the Selma, Montgomery March (Where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech). Then, when the country moved into the anti-war movement, we became a part of that. This conjunction of commitment to social change and music was, and continues to be, the essence of what I am dedicated to and what happily I see in younger people like my daughter. She is a great organizer; I am working with her leadership in an effort to return the Black Hills to the Lakotas.”
Yarrow’s daughter, Bethany, is not only an organizer, but she is a musician, as well. Yarrow’s daughter will join him on stage at ARISE along with Rufus Cappadocia, and the three are coming to do more than just play music. Yarrow explains, “So what you are going to hear me singing and performing when I come to the ARISE Festival, will represent part of the legacy of Peter, Paul, and Mary music combined with the music of my daughter. We are not just there to entertain. Not at all. We are there to light and experience the joy of being the connection between music and people’s feeling of power to move forward and create a less oppressed society and world. One that is more peaceful.” Yarrow also pointed out that his goals as an activist and musician are in align with what ARISE is shooting for as a festival. “We may being doing it in different forms” said Yarrow, “but the intent is exactly the same. We want to use music to inspire people to create community, to feel something together, and to be empowered to make a better world.”