Peter Yarrow (born May 31, 1938) is an American singer and songwriter who found fame with the 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Yarrow co-wrote (with Leonard Lipton) one of the group's greatest hits, "Puff, the Magic Dragon." He is also a political activist and has supported liberal causes that range from opposition to the Vietnam War to the creation of Operation Respect, an organization that promotes tolerance and civility in schools.
Yarrow in 2008
|Born||May 31, 1938|
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Early life and familyEdit
Peter Yarrow was born in Manhattan, the son of Vera Wisebrode (née Vira Burtakoff) and Bernard Yarrow. His parents were educated Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, whose families had settled in Providence, Rhode Island.
Bernard Yarrow (1899–1973) attended the University of Kraków (Kraków, Poland) and the Odessa University (Odessa, Ukraine), before emigrating to the United States in 1922 at the age of 23. He anglicized his surname from Yaroshevitz to Yarrow, obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Columbia University in 1925 where he joined Phi Sigma Delta fraternity, and in 1928 graduated from Columbia Law School. He then maintained a private law practice in New York City until 1938, when he was appointed an assistant district attorney under the then-district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. In 1944 he was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services, where he served with distinction.
After the war, Bernard Yarrow joined Sullivan and Cromwell, the Dulles brothers' law firm. He was a founding board member of the National Committee for a Free Europe, an anti-Communist organization. In 1952 he became a senior vice-president of the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe, an organization he helped to found.
Yarrow's mother Vera (1904–1991), who had come to America at age three, became a speech and drama teacher at New York's Julia Richman High School for girls. She and Bernard divorced in 1943 when their son Peter was five, and Vera subsequently married Harold Wisebrode, the executive director of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Bernard Yarrow married his wartime London OSS partner Silvia Tim, and converted to Protestantism.
Peter Yarrow graduated second in his class among male students with a physics prize from New York's High School of Music and Art, where he had studied painting. He was accepted at Cornell University as a physics major but soon switched majors, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology in 1959. Among his Cornell classmates were Thomas Pynchon and Richard Fariña.
Music and careerEdit
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Yarrow began singing in public during his last year at Cornell while participating in Harold Thompson's popular American Folk Literature course, colloquially known on campus as "Romp-n-Stomp". The course was "a highlight of late-1950s student life at Cornell", Yarrow reminisced, and the ability to sing and play guitar was a prerequisite for enrollment. Thompson would lecture on a topic for 20 or 30 minutes and afterwards a student would sing songs related to his theme. The experience of performing in front of a large audience was a thrilling one for Yarrow, who discovered he loved it. He branched out to lead community sings on weekends.
Upon graduation he played in folk clubs in New York City, appeared on the CBS television show, Folk Sound USA, and the following summer performed at the Newport Folk Festival, where he met manager and musical impresario Albert Grossman. One day, the two were at Israel Young's Folklore Center in Greenwich Village discussing Grossman's idea for a new group that would be "an updated version of the Weavers for the baby-boom generation ... with the crossover appeal of the Kingston Trio". Yarrow noticed a picture of Mary Travers on the wall and asked Grossman who she was. "That's Mary Travers," Grossman said. "She'd be good if you could get her to work." The lanky, blonde Kentucky-born Travers was well connected in Greenwich Village folk song circles. While still a high-school student at the progressive Elizabeth Irwin High School she had been picked out by Elizabeth Irwin's chorus leader Robert De Cormier to sing in a trio called The Song Swappers, backing up Pete Seeger in the 1955 Folkways LP reissue of the Almanac Singers' The Talking Union and two other albums. As well as performing twice with Seeger at Carnegie Hall, Travers had also played a folksinger in a short-lived Broadway play called The Next President, starring satirist Mort Sahl, but she was known to be painfully introverted and loath to sing professionally. To draw her out, "Mr. Yarrow went to Ms. Travers's apartment on MacDougal Street, across from the Gaslight, one of the principal folk clubs. They harmonized on 'Miner's Lifeguard', a union song, and decided that their voices blended. To fill out the trio, Ms. Travers suggested Noel Stookey, a friend doing folk music and stand-up comedy at the Gaslight."[attribution needed] They chose the catchy "Peter, Paul and Mary" as the name for their group, since Noel Stookey's middle name was Paul, and rehearsed intensively for six months, touring outside New York before debuting in 1961 as a polished act at The Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village. There the singers quickly developed a following and signed a contract with Warner Brothers.
Warner released "Lemon Tree" as a single in early 1962, then followed with the trio's version of "If I Had a Hammer", written in 1949 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays to protest the imprisonment of Harlem City Councilman Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. under the Smith Act. "If I had a Hammer" garnered two Grammy Awards in 1962. The trio's first album, the eponymous Peter, Paul & Mary, remained in the Top 10 for ten months, in the Top 20 for two years and sold more than two million copies. The group toured extensively and recorded numerous albums, both live and in the studio. In June 1963 they released a 7" single of "Blowin' in the Wind" by the then-relatively unknown Bob Dylan, also managed by Grossman. "Blowin' in the Wind" sold 300,000 copies in the first week of release and by August 17 was number two on the Billboard pop chart, with sales exceeding one million copies. Yarrow recalled that when he told Dylan he would make more than $5,000 (equivalent to $42,000 in 2019) from the publishing rights, Dylan was speechless. On August 28, 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary appeared on stage with the Reverend Martin Luther King at his historic March on Washington where their performance of "Blowin' in the Wind" established it as a civil rights anthem. Their version also spent weeks on Billboard's easy listening chart. By 1964 the 26-year-old Yarrow had joined the Board of the Newport Folk Festival, where he had performed as an unknown just four years earlier.
Yarrow's songwriting helped to create some of Peter, Paul and Mary's best-known songs, including "Puff, the Magic Dragon", "Day Is Done", "Light One Candle", and "The Great Mandala". As a member of the trio, he earned a 1996 Emmy nomination for the Great Performances special LifeLines Live, a highly acclaimed celebration of folk music, with their musical mentors, contemporaries, and a new generation of singer/songwriters.
Yarrow was instrumental in founding the New Folks Concert series at both the Newport Folk Festival and the Kerrville Folk Festival. His work at Kerrville has been called his "most important achievement in this arena."
He co-wrote and produced "Torn Between Two Lovers", a number one hit for Mary McGregor. He also produced three CBS TV specials based on "Puff, the Magic Dragon", which earned an Emmy nomination for him. In 1978 Yarrow organized Survival Sunday, an antinuclear benefit, and after a period of separation, he was once again joined by Stookey and Travers.
Yarrow and his daughter Bethany Yarrow, who is also a musician, often perform together. Together with cellist Rufus Cappadocia, they form the trio Peter, Bethany, and Rufus. They released the CD Puff & Other Family Classics. In 2008, the musical special Peter, Bethany & Rufus: Spirit of Woodstock, featuring a live performance of the band, aired on public television.
Yarrow portrayed leftist intellectual Ira Mandelstam in the 2015 film While We're Young.
Yarrow has long been an activist for social and political causes. What he did was not always popular. According to The New York Times:
As their fame grew, Peter, Paul and Mary mixed music with political and social activism. In 1963, the trio marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and Washington, D.C. The three participated in countless demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. They sang at the 1969 March on Washington, which Mr. Yarrow helped to organize. Though their activism provoked a steady stream of death threats, they were never harmed. "But for years, I used to bite my fingernails on stage," [Mary] Travers says. "There you are and look like the back porch light, and stare out at 12,000 or 15,000 people. Any one of whom could have had a gun."
In 2000, in an effort to combat school bullying, Yarrow helped start Operation Respect, a nonprofit organization that brings to children, in schools and camps, a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each other's differences. The project began as a result of Yarrow and his daughter Bethany and his son Christopher having heard the song Don't Laugh at Me (written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin) at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Operation Respect later quoted Yarrow as saying:
Since I have lived a life of social and political advocacy through music, one in which I had seen songs like "Blowin' In the Wind," "If I Had a Hammer," and "We Shall Overcome" become anthems that moved generations and helped solidify their commitment to efforts like the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement, I knew I had just discovered a song that could become an anthem of a movement to help children find their common sensitivity to the painful effects of disrespect, intolerance, ridicule and bullying."
Operation Respect's stated mission reads as follows: "To [ensure] each child and youth a respectful, safe, and compassionate climate of learning where their academic, social, and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule, and violence."
On behalf of Operation Respect, Yarrow has appeared, pro bono, in areas as diverse as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bermuda, Croatia, South Africa, Egypt, Argentina, and Canada. In all, the program has been presented to many educational leaders and more than 10 million children. In some form, the project has reached nearly one third of all elementary and middle schools in America—at least 20,000 schools, in all.
Operation Respect developed the Don't Laugh at Me (DLAM) programs, one for grades 2 through 5, another for grades 6 through 8 and a third for summer camps and after-school programs. These programs make use of music and video along with curriculum guides based on highly regarded conflict resolution curricula developed by the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) of Educators for Social Responsibility. Because of the generosity of its supporters, Operation Respect is able to disseminate the DLAM programs free of charge. More than 145,000 copies of the curriculum have been distributed to educators since Operation Respect began. Operation Respect also offers assembly programs and professional development workshops designed to provide educators with the tools for effective implementation.
In March 2008, Yarrow told Reuters:
Operation Respect has been my main and all-consuming work for the past 10 years. My perception is that the kind of bullying, humiliation that goes on in children's schools leads to high rates of depression that was virtually unknown when I was young and the high suicide rate of teenagers which we know is almost inevitably caused by bullying or mean-spiritedness. It is a reflection of the role models that young people observe on TV shows like a lot of the reality shows. It is also part and parcel of the characteristics in the adult world of America.
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Yarrow produced and coordinated many events as a part of the anti-Vietnam War movement, including the winter and summer Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium, respectively. These events raised funds for antiwar political candidates and featured dozens of folk, rock, jazz, and blues stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Miles Davis, Tom Paxton, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Steppenwolf. They were the first major concerts at such venues designed solely for such a purpose. The 1969 antiwar March on Washington, AKA The National Mobilization to End the War, in which some half-million people participated, was the largest of these efforts.
His leadership in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry inspired another generation. Of the song "Light One Candle", Rabbi Allison Bergman Vann has written:
Peter Yarrow's now famous song, which was written in 1983, became a defining song for my generation of high school and college students to become activists, to make the world a better place. I heard Peter Yarrow singing that song on the steps of the Capitol, in 1987, twenty years ago next week, during the march to free Soviet Jews. Listening to him sing, surrounded by literally thousands of like-minded individuals, I learned of my obligation to change the world; to engage in tikkun olam, repair of our broken world. And, during that incredible day, I knew that we could, indeed, change the world.
In August 2006, he met with representatives of 35 organizations, including the League of Cities, the Academy of Education, Americans for the Arts, and Newspapers in Education, to unite them in a commitment to "shifting the American educational paradigm, to educating the whole child; not just in academics but in character, heart, social–emotional development. As we Jews say, 'let him be a mensch first; everything else will work out.'" On November 1, 2008, Yarrow performed across New York City for volunteers who worked for the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama. On October 3, 2011, Yarrow, his son, and his daughter made an appearance at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests, playing songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved" and a variation of "Puff the Magic Dragon".
While campaigning for 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, Yarrow met McCarthy's niece, Mary Beth McCarthy, in Wisconsin. They were married in October 1969 in Willmar, Minnesota. Paul Stookey wrote "Wedding Song (There Is Love)" as his gift for their wedding and first performed it at St. Mary's Church in Willmar. They had two children, but later divorced.
In December 2000, Yarrow's Larrivee acoustic guitar was stolen on an airplane flight. In early 2005, fans spotted the guitar on eBay. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recovered it in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, and returned it to Yarrow. He did not press charges, as the person it was recovered from had not stolen it.
Yarrow has also acknowledged being an alcoholic, and sought treatment for the disease. He considers himself in recovery.
A longtime resident of New York City, Yarrow has also had a vacation home in Telluride, Colorado. Yarrow's son, Christopher, is a visual artist who in the late 2000s owned an emporium in Portland, Oregon, named The Monkey & The Rat.
Criminal conviction and pardon by President CarterEdit
In 1970, Yarrow was convicted, and served three months in prison, for taking "improper liberties" with a 14-year-old girl who went with her 17-year-old sister to Yarrow's hotel room seeking an autograph. "Yarrow answered the door naked and made sexual advances that stopped short of intercourse." The 14-year-old resisted his advances but according to reports, did not call for help. Yarrow served three months of a one-to three-year prison sentence.
He apologized for the incident, saying that "It was an era of real indiscretion and mistakes by categorically male performers. I was one of them. I got nailed. I was wrong. I'm sorry for it."
In 1981, Jimmy Carter granted Yarrow a presidential pardon for the crime. Nonetheless, it has occasionally become a campaign issue for politicians he supports. In 2004, Representative Martin Frost of Texas, a Democrat, canceled a fundraising appearance with the singer after his opponent ran a radio advertisement about Yarrow's offense; in 2013 Republican politicians in New York State called on Democratic congressional candidate Martha Robertson to cancel a scheduled fundraiser with Yarrow. In 2019 he was disinvited from a folk music festival when the organizers were informed of his conviction.
Awards and honorsEdit
Yarrow received the Allard K. Lowenstein Award in 1982 for his "remarkable efforts in advancing the causes of human rights, peace, and freedom." In 1995 the Miami Jewish Federation recognized Yarrow's continual efforts by awarding its Tikkun Olam Award for his part in helping to "repair the world."
Peter, Paul and MaryEdit
- 1972 Peter US #163
- 1973 That's Enough For Me US #203
- 1975 Hard Times
- 1975 Love Songs
- 2010 The Peter Yarrow Sing-Along Special
Peter, Bethany and RufusEdit
- 2008 Puff & Other Family Classics
- Puff, the Magic Dragon, by Peter Yarrow, Lenny Lipton, Eric Puybaret (illustrator), Sterling Publishing, released in August 2007, ISBN 978-1-4027-4782-3
- The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Favorite Folk Songs, by Peter Yarrow, Terry Widener (illustrator), Sterling Publishing, released November 4, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4027-5961-1
- The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Sleepytime Songs, by Peter Yarrow, Terry Widener (Illustrator), Sterling Publishing, released November 4, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4027-5962-8
- Day Is Done, by Peter Yarrow, Melissa Sweet (Illustrator), Sterling Publishing, released October 2009, ISBN 978-1-4027-4806-6
- The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Songs for Little Folks, by Peter Yarrow, Terry Widener (Illustrator), Sterling Publishing, released May 2010, ISBN 978-1-4027-5964-2
- Biographical sketch from the Bernard Yarrow Papers, 1907 to 1973, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower.archives.gov; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Summer 2014 Deltan Zbtdigitaldeltan.com
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- Scott R. Benarde, Stars of David: Rock'n'roll's Jewish Stories (Brandeis University Press, 2008), p. 57. See also Lynn Katalin Kádár, "At War While at Peace United States Cold War Policy and the National Committee for a Free Europe, Inc", pp. 7-69 in Lynn Katalin Kádár, editor, The Inauguration of "Organized Political Warfare": The Cold War Organizations Sponsored by the National Committee for a Free Europe (St. Helena, California: Helena History Press, 2013).
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