Yarrow focuses on non-violence, equality

In the 1960s, Peter Yarrow was at the forefront of the protest movement, using his fame as a member of folk music trio Peter, Paul & Mary to fight for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

Having spent years using his music and his presence to battle the symptoms of hatred, racism and intolerance, Yarrow has in recent times turned his attention to eradicating the cause. His work these days centers on speaking and singing to young people, offering a message of hope, equality, self-esteem and non-violence. He’s the founder of two programs directed at that goal, Operation Respect and Don’t Laugh at Me.


“You know, in the Anti-Defamation League, they speak of the ‘pyramid of hate,'” Yarrow says by phone from Washington D.C. “And it starts with bullying and teasing among children. And it goes to bias and racism and hatred. And then it develops into war and then holocaust. In order to keep that pyramid of hate from being recapitulated, we need kids to accept each other, to embrace each other.”

His programs, he says, teach kids “to be a mensch.”

“If you’re a mensch, you believe in something and you act accordingly and you stand up for what is right.”

Yarrow has opened a new front on his endeavor by turning some of his folk anthems into children’s books. The first, Puff the Magic Dragon, was a huge success, selling nearly a million copies. His latest, Day Is Done, debuted at No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list. He is coming to St. Louis to speak in conjunction with the Jewish Book Festival, although he postponed his visit by a week or so in order to attend a memorial service for Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul &Mary), who died in September.

The idea of children’s books had been discussed for years, Yarrow says, “but I just didn’t have any real interest in doing it.”

What changed his mind, though, was being invited onstage to sing by his daughter, Bethany. “All of a sudden, I realized that these songs acquired a very different, intergenerational energy that was very contemporary and very appealing and very touching.”

The books include companion CDs, which feature Yarrow singing with his daughter.

Day Is Done is a song that Yarrow wrote for his younger brother. “It was at the height of the anti-war movement,” he says. “I looked at the world and I said, on his behalf, “You know I love you and I’m by your side.’ He wasn’t my son, but he was quite a bit younger and I felt fatherly toward him.

Yarrow performed the song at the 1969 March on Washington, an anti-war protest that drew half a million people. As he looks at the song now, he focuses mostly on the last verse.

“Here we are; we’ve got a song that was well known as a peace song that says, in the end, ‘I’m not sure why you are smiling, my son, when I am discussing the pain of the world. But I now realize that your eyes have not been dimmed by weariness or cynicism. You see what we learn to disguise.’ So I say to my son, ‘Take my hand. You lead me.'”

Yarrow admits he’s heard criticism of his programs. “They say, ‘I know what Peter Yarrow wants to do. You want to turn us into a nation of namby-pambies. We’ve got to be training our kids to kill terrorists, not trying to understand terrorists. What’s that all about?’

“The truth is, if we want the respect of the world, we have to not just say things, but do things, that are ethical. Because we are a nation dominated by mensches – not by bullies.”

Peter Yarrow

WHEN: 7:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18

WHERE: Staenberg Family Complex Gynasium, 2 Millstone Campus Drive


MORE INFO: Yarrow’s appearance is part of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Call 314-442-3299 or visit www.jccstl.com for more information.