A LOOK AT THE BROADER POWER OF MUSIC TO BRING CHANGE
Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers and Noel Paul Stookey sang about “the hammer of justice,” “the bell of freedom” and
“the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land,” many times, as their version of Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes”
“If I Had a Hammer” rose to number ten on the Billboard national pop singles chart. But, one particular performance, on one particular day was different. It was not in trendy Greenwich Village folk club or the friendly confines of a coffee shop in another Northeast city. The date was August 28, 1963; the place was the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall overflowing with people, on an 84-degree day in Washington, DC. Dr. Martin Luther King was about to deliver one of the most stirring and famous speeches in history: “I Have a Dream.” “For everybody, it was transformational,”Peter Yarrow recalls with a tone that suggests the memory is as vivid as if the event happened yesterday. “When you stand there with a quarter of a million people who are saying the laws of the government of the United States are unjust, it?s a powerful moment to say the scales had better fall from your eyes, that you had better see what is going on. “You cannot say “liberty and justice for all” without being a hypocrite. There was hardly liberty and certainly no justice for all African-Americans in America.
“We realized that by being there together and singing there together, we were united in spirit and commitment; we would stay the course and not be dissuaded from our purpose in the long haul.” Time has done nothing to dull Yarrow’s lifelong social activism paradigm.
“The ethic behind songs of conscience doesn’t change, even though the issues are altered from generation to generation.”
While Peter, Paul and Mary enjoyed tremendous pop success in the 1960’s, charting 19 singles between 1962 and 1969, including one Billboard #1 hit and six top 10 hits with songs significantly treading folky and socially conscious grounds, mobile entertainers are not likely to play their music.
However, Yarrow, who, in his seventies, continues to entertain to this day (Mary passed away in 2009 and Paul also performs solo) illuminates the possibilities of an entertainer who seeks to make difference in greater society rather than just grab another headline or another dollar, or to bask in the filtered light of past glory.
Through his music, his organizing prowess and his presence, Yarrow has worked tirelessly over the last five decades for a myriad of causes including hunger, homelessness, the nuclear threat, education, equal rights, arts in the classroom, Holocaust remembrance and, most recently, respect amongst our youth.
“Generally, what happens in our world, a movement or a perspective evolves and then songs are written to personify it.
“In this case, a movement began with a song,” Yarrow offered. This time around, the song that spurred Yarrow to act is “Don’t Laugh at Me,” written by Steve Seskin and Allan Shamblin.
“When I was at the Kerrville Folk Festival about fifteen years ago, my daughter Bethany said “Dad, you’ve got to hear this song. It’s amazing. Last night, Steve Seskin sang it at the campfire and when he finished everyone said “sing it again.” That never happened before.”
“When I heard the song, just as she had predicted, there were tears rolling down my cheeks. I was terribly moved.”
So moved that Yarrow not only shared the song to his singing partners, Mary and Paul, he started Operation Respect. Founded in 2000, the non-profit organization brings to children, in schools and camps, a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each other’s differences.
“We have to turn our kids into kids who grow up to look at things through the lens of positive, non-conflict resolution, through the lens of valuing themselves for something intrinsic rather saying, “I’m important because I have a lot of money and my parents have a lot of money.” We must do this.”
While some may see Operation Respect as an anti-violent or an anti-bullying program, Yarrow says, “The real heart of the program is to create a little society amongst the children in which they can be accepting of one another. In that kind of an atmosphere, we can grow children to break the cycle of hatred, of fear that feeds this incessant chain of abuse that leads to mean-spiritedness and a fractured society, to aching hearts and to war.”
With each concert, Yarrow seeks to build a little community within the guests. “When people attend my shows, they’ll hear about pieces of this history as it relates to the songs and they’ll sing together.
“If we sing “Puff the Magic Dragon together, it’s a delight. If we sing “If I Had a Hammer,” it’s joyous and affirmative.”
Just like that day in 1963. MB
Mobile DJ, dance instructor, emcee, voice actor, writer, teacher, and improv comedian, Mike Ficher owns and operates Dance Express, based in Bend, Oregon. A three-time presenter and host at Mobile Beat conventions, Mike has been
expanding the public’s definition of mobile entertainer since 1986.
Filed Under: Issue #141, Music
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