Peter, Paul, and Mary is a household name. You have heard of them, you have listened to them, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have seen them play. The group was together nearly 50 years, producing famous originals and famous covers such as If I Had a Hammer (The Weavers Cover), Puff, the Magic Dragon, and Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan cover), working under Warner Brothers, and employing their gifts for good in the world, using their songs to raise advocacy at a time where people were looking to have a conversation.
After the passing of Redding resident, Mary Travers in 2009, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey have continued to play as both a duo and individually, touring all over the country. This week, Connecticut is in for a special treat: the two of them together, playing at The Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday July 16.
A Deeper Meaning
This is not the first time Yarrow has been to Ridgefield Playhouse. After the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, he was asked to put together a “concert of feeling”, which he ended up producing at the playhouse.
“There was a wonderful singer with whom I sung with whose name is Francine Wheeler and her husband David. Francine had lost her son in the tragedy, and she was devastated. So being in touch with these people and working together, it was extraordinary, (a) very painful but very important moment.”
Yarrow has been involved in anti-gun violence and anti-gun advocacy for over 30 years, since the killing of a great friend.
“When I go back to Ridgefield, my memories and my heart will be revolving around those experiences that were so important to me that occurred then, so it's a special place to be.” Yarrow continued, “It’s not just a theater to me, but a place where I go that is filled with that energy and that hopefulness and the painful memories as well.”
Some Old, Some New, in Ridgefield
Concert-goers will not only be listening to magic happen, but will most likely be participating in it as well. Stookey explains, “It will primarily be a Peter, Paul, and Mary repertoire, but as most Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts historically have been, there’s a give and take and a spontaneity with the audience that makes every concert a unique experience.”
After 50 years of play, there is still plenty more to be said and felt. “The solo sections are new material, usually brand new songs that Peter or I have written which is what we used to do with the trio.” And Mary, although no longer with us physically, is still felt in every show. “The pervasive presence of Mary even in her absence (is clear); we honor her and welcome that spirit and the audience quite often sings Mary’s part and we sing harmony, play guitar, and hang on for dear life. It’s about a 2 hour show with an intermission.”
Backstage with Peter and Paul
It is clear that coming back to Connecticut is going to be a very meaningful experience for these two musicians who have had such expansive careers. When the group was first starting out, everything happened very fast: they quickly drew an audience, and quickly started getting a response. Launching in 1961, Peter, Paul, and Maryhappened to start playing at a time when people wanted to have authentic conversations, and audiences were really hungry for music that would facilitate that.
“It wasn’t so much of entertainment as it was a sharing of a moment,” Stookey told me. It was important to people to have a space to come together and talk about important issues of the time. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s folk music became a strong vessel for this, oftentimes hosting concerts where the entire room sat and sang together spontaneously, which this Sunday’s event may very well be like.
“(Peter, Paul, and Mary’s work) was not music that was written to make music, it was written traditionally to tell the hopes and aspirations and turmoils and struggles of real people in a world where so much is driven by dollars and people who are competing to make those dollars…” Yarrow shared, “There is a terrible loss of authenticity, and it’s a really deep desire of people's hearts to experience that authenticity.”
“It’s a (phrase) that I’ve heard Peter use occasionally,” Stookey continued, “‘There is a mean spiritedness that is all too prevalent in a lot of contemporary writing.’ The older you get, the more you start to understand that if love is not at the center of what it is you’re doing with your life, you’re not doing much with your life. After 55 years of writing songs, I’m realizing that the one universal that all people seem to share is the desire to love and be loved. Music can help foster that, and that’s kind of my role, my personal mission: (to be) opening up people to the value of being vulnerable and respectful for one another.”
Changing the World, from MLK to the Stage
Activism through this opening of conversations is at the base of everything Yarrow and Stookey have been doing throughout their careers. Everything that they did then, everything that they do now, and the reason they play music at all, is to open up doors of discussion. Fame created opportunities for the group to take public actions as well: Peter, Paul, and Mary participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam war, have donated concert proceeds to organizations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and PBS, and were granted an incredible opportunity: to sing at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We realized as others who were there that when people get together with their hearts and make a commitment of that sort and sustain that commitment, the course of history can be altered,” Yarrow said. “That is what guided the group and motivated us. Not that there weren’t other dimensions in our relationship and in our music, but that was the epiphany, that was the turning part, where we had only been committed to these things before, and now there was a sense of conviction after that that such efforts were not only potentially successful but could be definitive in terms of moving history, our country, (and) human beings.”
Stookey explained that having this huge platform, however, was total happenstance. No one, in the music business or in any business, can wholly control how many people their work will reach. “We happened to be singing the right music at the right time,” he shared, “and we became surrogates, articulators.” But you never do know when you begin a career such as this how many people you are going to affect. What do you do if you feel the want to make a difference in this way without the platform?
“Grow where you’re planted,” he said. However famous you are, the conversations are there to be had, and the difference in the world is ready to be made. Fostering meaningful experiences such as these is for anyone, anywhere, to do.
In terms of what’s on the horizon and what these two continue to do, the mission never stops. For Stookey, his current expression of personal mission lies in the music, namely with his recent song Work Together. Instead of sitting back and ignoring things in order to create a more “unified” culture, Stookey shares the importance behind standing with what you believe in.
“Some things you just can’t tolerate. Work Together is not a diatribe, it’s not mean spirited, finger pointing so much as a declaration of independence. You know it’s really saying, These are the things that I will not co-operate on, I will not budge. At some point in your life you have to take a stand, but you don’t have to do that by badmouthing the people who are opposite you, you can just take a stand yourself.”
Stookey, a big techie, excitedly told me about another project he’s working on: 360 degree music videos, the first filming the day after the concert. The music videos would allow viewers to scroll to whichever musician they wanted to watch. As far as music and touring goes, Stookey likes to stay closer to home - a house on the water in Maine, where he lives with his wife - but he does tour with Peter and by himself.
For Yarrow, the expression looks different. “In the interest of not changing the politics but healing the divide, I am involved in a documentary, with a group called Better Angels.” Yarrow and a team went to a small town in Ohio, bringing together ten Republican voters and ten Democrats for 2 days for carefully guided conversations. “None of them had changed their political positions but they had said, ‘These are good Americans! These are good people!’ They listened, they found that these are not people you can’t deal with on a rational basis, who you can’t talk to, and it totally changed their perspectives. One of the participants said, ‘We can disagree politically, but we are still Americans, we can still like each other, we can still love each other.’”
As well as Better Angels, Yarrow has spent the last 20 years on his non-profit called Operation Respect, an organization that teaches kids social-emotional skills, and creates safe and compassionate communities. Operation Respect is currently in 22,000 schools across the country and 50 countries worldwide, working to heal the “widening hole of the erosion of compassion and empathy in our culture”.
From all that Yarrow and Stookey do together to all they do apart, the palpable spirit of Peter, Paul, and Maryshines through their work, their conversations, and their persons as they continue to work towards their individual missions of creating a better world. To experience one of their shows, you can join them at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday, July 16th at 8pm.
Click here for tickets and more information.
Thank you very much to Mr. Noel Paul Stookey and Mr. Peter Yarrow for spending the time to talk with me for this interview. These are the conversations we should be having.