Folk music icons sell out Pa.'s Luhrs Center

March 15, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. - He's 70 years old and a folk music icon, but it's not Mr. Yarrow. It's Peter.

"I could never imagine anybody (calling) Pete Seeger 'Mr. Seeger,' though I know people who have done it," Yarrow said in a recent phone interview. "He's been my model."

Yarrow is the Peter in Peter, Paul and Mary - the folk music trio who had a string of hits in the 1960s and brought national attention to the songs "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Leaving On a Jet Plane" before those songs' songwriters, Bob Dylan and John Denver, became household names.

Peter, Paul and Mary are performing a sold-out show Friday night at Shippensburg University's H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center.

When the trio was assembled in 1961, Paul, whose name is actually Noel Stookey, was considered the group's funny guy.

But Yarrow has a pretty decent sense of humor himself. Case in point: Listen to him explaining how "Puff, the Magic Dragon," a song he co-wrote, is not about drugs in an online audio at Yarrow starts dissecting "The Star-Spangled Banner," joking about how it could be interpreted as a song about drugs.


According to Peter, Paul and Mary's Web site (, the misinformation about "Puff" began with a Newsweek article published a few years after the song was released about hidden drug messages in popular songs.

"At first it's shocking, and then you realize that it's really problematical because a lot of radio stations stopped playing it," recalled Yarrow, who lives in New York City.

Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew had criticized the recording industry for promoting the drug culture, according to an online article of The Freedom Forum. The forum is a foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit.

"Implicit in the warning by Spiro Agnew and the FCC was that people could have their licenses yanked if they played songs that had a second meaning or a subterfuge kind of intent that related to drugs," Yarrow said.

While "Puff" wasn't about drugs, several of the songs the trio became well-known for have political or social messages, including "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' In the Wind."

"For me, it's all about how this music creates community and illuminates the issues of the time," Yarrow said.

He said he expects the trio to sing both songs as well as "Puff, the Magic Dragon," "Leaving On a Jet Plane," and some newer songs during the acoustic show at the Luhrs Center.

Early years

As a child, Yarrow took violin lessons and went to concerts.

"If you're Jewish and you grow up in New York, you take art lessons and music lessons and you do all that stuff," he said, especially if your mother is a schoolteacher.

Yarrow was interested in art. He painted, attended the High School of Music and Art as an art student, joined the Art Students League and went to design school.

It was at Cornell University that music and its ability to relate to community came to the forefront for him.

Yarrow was a teaching assistant for a folk music and folk ballads class during his senior year 1959. He sang and played the songs that were discussed by the professor. On Saturdays, instead of class, there was a singalong.

"The singalong became so popular that it became a phenomenon whereby literally hundreds and hundreds and sometimes as many as a thousand kids would join," Yarrow recalled.

During a time when fraternities ruled Cornell and there was a rigid social hierarchy based upon wealth, race, sex and gender, Yarrow said he was amazed to see the students so engaged and open.

"The singing of the songs ... tapped into something that was very powerful in them, that related to creation of community," Yarrow said. "I came to the conclusion ... that the world really was going to change, ... and that folk music was going to be part of this."

So, instead of pursing a career in market research after leaving Cornell, Yarrow went to Greenwich Village in New York and started singing.

"And always in my mind, it was that that propelled me into music ... it was how it affected people and created a sense of closeness and community that was most important to me," Yarrow said.

Peter, Paul & Mary

In 1961, Yarrow met Albert Grossman, a manager of professional musicians. Grossman, seeing that folk music was growing in popularity, decided to assemble a folk music trio. He brought together Yarrow, Stookey and Mary Travers.

"It seemed a natural," Yarrow said. "I'd sung with other people and I'd always loved it. To me, I had no particular desire to be the solo. I just wanted to do what it was that I was sharing.

"And when Mary and Noel and I sang together it was immediate, it was like the intuitive sense of rightness that one has when one meets somebody that one thinks will be a great friend or when one falls in love. It's just kind of there," Yarrow said. "And if you're gutsy enough and young enough to believe in such things, you follow your nose."

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