Since the 1962 release of Peter, Paul and Mary's eponymous first album, Peter Yarrow has been one of the world's most visible examples of that old adage about putting one's money where one's mouth is.
Not only did the New York-based harmony trio help to kick-start the folk music revival of the era, they sang — loudly and proudly — about social upheaval, petty global politics and the woeful inequality that existed between the races in America. They led anti-war protests.
It's a series of indelible sounds and images: Yarrow, Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers, gathered around a single microphone, singing "If I Had a Hammer" at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, singing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" at innumerable peace events, singing the ephemeral "Puff the Magic Dragon" (no, it has nothing to do with drugs) for tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden.
Yarrow's innate sense of responsibility has continued all these years; in 2000 he co-founded Operation Respect, a non-profit organization that uses a music-based curriculum to promote tolerance and civility in U.S. schools.
Since Travers' death in 2009, Yarrow and Stookey occasionally perform together. More often than not, however, Yarrow is on a stage or behind a lectern, alone with his acoustic guitar, speaking (and singing) with vehemence and conviction about music and its continuing power to shape our lives.
All of which makes him the perfect headliner for this week's Savannah Folk Festival. He'll play two sets Oct. 13 in Grayson Stadium.
Here's what Yarrow wants you to know about this gig:
"Yes, it will be nostalgic for many. But on another level, it will bring them a sense of what is still possible. Yes, they will sing 'Leaving on a Jet Plane,' and I will give them a sense of the current history of what this music is doing, and why it's important.
"So it will be a history lesson, it will be a singalong that inspires, but it will also assert the importance of the continuation of this kind of music in people's lives today. And where we're going from here in those terms. It's not necessarily a big lecture — it's inherent in the music. They'll get it. I know it, 'cause that's what I do."
Pete Seeger is 94. You, my friend, are no spring chicken. So why do you keep working — is there something unfulfilled in you?
Peter Yarrow: This is not work — this is life. This makes it all make sense. I honestly don't believe that people should stop doing what they enjoy doing, and what gives them a sense of meaningful-ness in their life. That's like saying 'Oh, no, you're too old to play with your grandchildren.' I know what you've asked ... I'm just giving you something to write!
Well, for one, there's a lot of travel ...
Peter Yarrow: Of course there's a lot that's stressful and difficult. But I happen to feel that people get old and unhappy when they don't have something in their lives that gives them a sense of their worth. This question goes right to the heart of what's most important to work on today: If we want a peaceful world, and a world that survives, we have to teach kids the satisfaction of giving and caring. The idea of "us" rather than "me," and that is precisely what folk music does. Oddly enough, you hit on the essence of what drives my efforts at this point.
After a career of more than 50 years, I wonder ... was the goal, ever, to be just an entertainer? Or has communication always been a big factor for you?
Peter Yarrow: It was never about the music alone. I mean, I loved the music, but without it serving as a catalyst for creating a community and positive social-political change, I would've never — never — entered this field. That is the primary motivational place from which I come.
That's what I will be doing when I come to Savannah. This will not be a look down Memory Lane. These songs are still vital, and important, and if you see the Operation Respect program, it's in 22,000 schools; kids are singing all over the country.
When I was singing at the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, with Paul, I called the attorney for Trayvon Martin's parents, and we sang with them. And then we sang with Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son Daniel at Newtown. And that image — just seeing us together — made a very strong statement: On the shoulders of what we are celebrating today, we must stop the violence. And I'm not just talking about gun violence, I'm talking about emotional violence, and I'm talking about all the things that contribute to the ongoing reality of that.
Music was one of the ways that we powerfully established the sense of the importance of we-ness, of togetherness, of caring about each other. Believing in each other. I'm not talking about somebody up there singing on American Idol. I'm talking about music that people sang together.
To play devil's advocate, one could say the world has changed a lot. Do people still get that visceral feeling you're talking about? Can you still bring people together with music today?
Peter Yarrow: Yeah, with Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Denver ... up in Wisconsin, with the Factivists ... with music that's on the top of the charts? Absolutely not. But does that negate it? No, it's just a terrible pity that the music business has so commodified the music world ... what is promoted by the record companies, to a large degree, is music that is titillating and salacious. Why, because it sells the most records!
Now, that is not categorically the case. Certainly the DJs who create these dance things — and this is a huge industry now — are creating a sense of celebration.
But I'm talking about music whose content, whose intention, is to bring us together in a positive way. That, to a large degree, is left to the synagogues, the churches and mainly the summer camps. It still persists. But it does not occupy the place, alas, that it once did in our society — a place that was so meaningful.
Innumerable people have said "That was the beginning of my consciousness. That awakened in me a whole perspective on spirituality, on what I could do in my life that would be meaningful. It was my awakening to activism and political inquiry." Music was a hugely important partner in that evolution of the Greening of America in the '60s and '70s.