With technical issues silencing microphones and the moderator missing for an American Renewable Energy Day panel discussion on the arts and social change Monday night, folk singer Peter Yarrow simply picked up his guitar and got to work.
The Peter, Paul and Mary member — joined onstage in the Hotel Jerome ballroom by bluesman Taj Mahal, cellist Michael Fitzpatrick and filmmaker Greg Reitman — led the crowd in unplugged sing-alongs of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”
“This song is emblematic of something,” Yarrow said of Seeger’s anti-war song, on which he traded verses with Mahal, who played a ukuele, with accompaniment from Fitzpatrick on cello. “When we started singing it, we thought it would be an anachronism by the time our careers were over. Sadly, it is not.”
As the crowd repeated the hushed chorus, “When will they ever learn?” in unison, Yarrow, 76, said: “You hear that sound? None of us can make that sound. Only all of you together can make that sound. What is that sound? It’s the sound of community, the sound of peace, the sound of empathy.”
The mics never did turn on, but moderator Chip Comins made it onto the stage eventually, and Yarrow compelled the crowd to gather close around the men to hear their conversation.
Over the next hour and a half, Yarrow shared stories from his long career, making a case for idealism in the face of cynicism and for music as an effective agent of social change.
He told of performing “500 Miles” for President Kennedy and a small audience of dignitaries at Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s home in Washington with Peter, Paul and Mary, acting as foot soldiers in the civil-rights movement. Back then, as he did with the ARE Day crowd, he got the politicians to gather and listen closely.
“I said to them, ‘This is called folk music. When we sing folk music, we generally sit down on the floor, and the performers — so that they can be heard better — they stand up, and it’s much better than standing together and getting tired.’ And who was the first person to sit on the floor? The president. And everyone followed,” he said.
The same night, they played “If I Hammer,” which they would later perform at the March on Washington in 1963, before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“In those kinds of moments, we saw music, when it came from a certain intention, could bring people’s hearts together,” Yarrow said. “When we got on-stage at the March on Washington, that was our primary responsibility.”
Asked how the environmentalist movement — the focus of ARE Day — can use music to get people involved and change minds, Yarrow noted that Peter, Paul and Mary aimed to speak to people who disagreed with them about civil rights, arguing that music can transcend differences and encourage dialogue. The trio, he noted, sang to one another when they performed, not to the audience, which he said projected ideas of respect and communication.
“We saw our role as being a bridge to bypass the prejudice, the idea of hate,” he said.
Music — and books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — bring about social change, he said, not through the information they carry but by inspiring people and opening a dialogue.
Such transcendent voices have been squeezed out of the music business, however, he argued.
“It reaches the common denominator that makes one thing: more money,” he said, later adding: “Look at ‘America’s Got Talent’ or ‘American Idol’ or ‘The Voice.’ What is it that people are applauding? The same thing that they’re applauding when they hear this electronica, where something vibrates with such intensity that it provides some kind of anesthetic on some level rather than coming from the side of love.”
But Yarrow is still fighting the good fight. Last year, in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, he played a free concert for the community there. This summer, he attempted to stage a concert for peace in Palestine.
“We need to find our voice together that creates community,” he said.
To that end, he played a version of “Down By the Riverside,” adding, “I’m gonna stop all that poison fracking” to the chorus. Mahal followed with a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” injecting “GMOs,” “corporate business” and “global mania” into the lyrics.
“There has to be more controversial things being said in music,” Mahal said. “All music, all art, everything needs to be about saving our planet.”
Expect to hear some such material from Mahal soon, he said.
“I’ve got stuff piled up that’s going to get me into trouble when I do it,” he said.
Yarrow said he hopes music returns to Woody Guthrie’s folk activism, though he suggested an update to the “This Guitar Kills Fascists” credo Guthrie emblazoned on his instrument: “Nowadays, we’d say, ‘This guitar abominates fascism and wants to forgive fascists.’”