Peter Yarrow — of the popular 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — will perform a benefit concert in La Jolla on Friday, Feb. 28.
The concert, to be held at a private home whose address will be identified only to ticket-buyers, benefits One Story at a Time and littlemercies.org, two non-profits that bring humanitarian aid and hope to refugees detained at the Mexican border.
As you are about to read, the 81-year-old author of “Puff the Magic Dragon” — who spoke to the Light from his home in Manhattan — remains as committed as ever to his ’60s idealism, and has some very strong beliefs about what’s right for the future of this country.
Yarrow has toured regularly — either solo or with Paul (Stookey) — since the 2009 death of Mary (Travers) from complications of chemotherapy treatment for leukemia.
Tickets are $175 each at just1atatime.org/concerts and attendees are encouraged to bring a donation of new underwear, school and art supplies, or hygiene products. (Everything will be delivered to shelters in the Tijuana area after the concert.)
Why is this cause dear to you?
“My parents came from Ukraine, and if they were not let in, they would have died and I wouldn’t be here. It’s a simple matter of humanity, fairness, justice, empathy and concern — everything Peter, Paul and Mary sang about. This is not new. We’re talking about a worldwide crisis and a very big problem. Everywhere in the world, where there has been a strong man who has taken control, he uses the threat of foreigners to make people frightened. We are traveling the Nazi playbook, and this is one manifestation of it. This is how it happened! We’re living it and we don’t know if we’re going to survive as a democracy or a country.”
A lot of the generation we used to call “the hippies” gave up on social causes long ago, but your resolve seems to have steeled.
“I agree. Part of it is because Peter, Paul and Mary’s raison d’etre was really not just to entertain. What we were about was following in the footsteps of Pete Seeger — using our music to create community. And one of the reasons we’re facing a crisis of conscience in America right now is the disappearance of socially conscious music. It’s really a terrible thing. It’s the almighty dollar. You don’t know who wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in the last 30 years, because you never heard it, because no record company would engage themselves. Slowly, it just went.
Whatever it was that helped the movement to bind people together the way it did back then, that is what we desperately need now. What we need is for people to humanize each other and stop viciously attacking each other, being afraid of each other, and hating each other because we voted differently. This is crazy. It’s an invalid construct.”
You got to see Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in person, instead of afterward on TV like most people. Is there anything more you got from it by witnessing it live?
“No, but we sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ before the speech, and a quarter million people sang along. That was very important for us. And when Dr. King was delivering his speech, Mary took my hand and said, ‘Peter, we’re watching history being made.’ And of course, she was right.”
I understand how much you hate this question. And I understand that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is really not about marijuana. But, umm, how is it not about marijuana?
“It’s not about drugs. It’s about the innocence of childhood lost. It was written when I was a senior at Cornell and Lenny Linton, who was a junior, came to my room and typed out the basis of that song, to which I added lyrics and music. At the time, in 1959, there was no grass on campus. No Eastern colleges had it. Only California had it. Lenny and I were oblivious to the reality of marijuana. We were squares then.”
You have to admit it is a coincidence.
“There’s no coincidence. You can analyze ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and have it be a drug song: ‘Oh say can you see’— well, ‘c’ refers to cocaine, and broad stripes and bright stars refers to narcotics officers ...’ ”
Did you know there’s a cannabis strain named Magic Dragon?
“No doubt. There also was a Gatling gun-type bomber that was named Puff the Magic Dragon. It was used in El Salvador and Vietnam. You can’t do anything about things like that.”
What’s your favorite song to perform live?
“What song is most moving in that moment depends on the circumstances you’re in. Now that we’re in the era of Donald Trump, it’s a different song than we sang at the National Guard Armory for JFK. It’s like your children — whomever behaves the best that day. Mary used to say that.”
Is early ’60s folk still your favorite music? Is there some surprising other kind of music you ever got into? The Beatles, Beastie Boys, Justin Bieber?
“I started on the violin, so I love classical music. I also love doo-wop music. I always have. The Platters knocked my socks off. I love a lot of international music, too. But most commercial music today is useless to me. It’s like watching a technical singer — an actor who doesn’t really take on the persona of the person they’re supposed to live in. It’s an exercise in technical excellence, but it’s not the truth. Music should come from an authentic place, not from wanting to wow people.”
If someone told you in 1961, when Peter, Paul and Mary played its first show, that you’d be singing some of the same songs into your eighth decade, what would you tell them?
“I would have said that I want to do this my whole life. If I’d been selling insurance and when I turned 70, someone asked, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I would have said, ‘You know. I’m desperate to retire because I want to become what I’ve always wanted to become, which is a folk singer.’
So I’ve essentially been a retiree my entire career.”