Peter Yarrow: Music Changed Hearts and Minds in '60s, And It Still Does Today

April 29, 2010

April 29, 2010 — Peter Yarrow's visit to the University of Virginia on Thursday was a night of firsts.

The performance by the legendary musician of the Peter, Paul and Mary folk trio was the inaugural event for the U.Va. Center for Politics' new "Golden Anniversary Series," which will focus on the landmark political events of the 1960s.

Another first, according to Yarrow, was the cacophony of quacking that filled the Old Cabell Hall Auditorium as he led the audience through the classic folk song, "The Fox." This juxtaposition of the serious and silly was an appropriate theme for reflection on a decade marked by both tragedies and triumphs.

Yarrow spent the evening with his guitar strapped around his neck, weaving a narrative of his life in music and politics, punctuating the major events with renditions of the iconic songs that were emblematic of the time. He began by telling the story of the folk renaissance that he participated in while living and playing in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, sharing his connections to Pete Seeger and a musician who was "reading the newspaper and making up songs," a man he knew as Bobby Dylan.

After playing his version of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Yarrow shared his first major experience with the civil rights movement. After a phone call from Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary went to Washington, D.C., to play their big hit "If I Had a Hammer" during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Listening to Martin Luther King Jr. give his indelible "I Have a Dream" speech, Yarrow recalled his late bandmate Mary Travers turning to him and saying, "We are living history, Peter."

It was a history influenced heavily by music. Music, Yarrow said, "told the news" and was not just entertainment. "Music is a very powerful tool because it can really create community," explained Yarrow before launching into the Peter, Paul and Mary classic "Music Speaks Louder than Words."

With a personal history rooted in the civil rights movement and protest music, Yarrow said it takes more than policy and logic to bring about political change. Reflecting on the music of the 1960s, Yarrow recalled, "It reached right through people's defenses and allowed them to feel moved and vulnerable in ways they might not have chosen to be moved."

Yarrow's story and recollections, connected by his playing of protest songs like "Have You Been to Jail for Justice?" and "This Little Light of Mine," provided an overview of how the important events and movements of the 1960s touched a large group of people. It was an overview and a perspective the Center for Politics plans to build on during its "Golden Anniversary Series" as it examines in detail the seminal events of that decade on their 50th anniversaries, providing perspectives of those who participated in the political decisions and those affected by them.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, said the goal of the new series is to show how those past events still resonate today. "The 1960s were a time of change and those changes persist in our politics. There are also lessons, both positive and negative, that we should learn from this fascinating decade and that is our aim with this series." Yarrow agreed, "This legacy is not over. This is not ancient history. I'm not singing these songs so people can say, ‘Oh, what a great time that was… How irrelevant!'"

Instead of a feeling of irrelevance, Yarrow hoped to leave the audience with a sense of community and renewed commitment to each other. Coaxing everyone to stand up and join hands, a familiar sight at a university known for "The Good Ol' Song," Yarrow led the auditorium in singing the protest anthem "We Shall Overcome." As the crowd swayed and the sang, Yarrow's message about the continuing struggles of the 1960s resounded as well.

— Isaac Wood