Music and career
Yarrow at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2016
Yarrow began singing in public during his last year at Cornell while participating in Professor Harold Thompson's popular American Folk Literature course, colloquially known on campus as "Romp-n-Stomp." The course was "a highlight of late-1950s student life at Cornell", Yarrow reminisced, and the ability to sing and play guitar was a prerequisite for enrollment. Thompson would lecture on a topic for 20 or 30 minutes and afterwards a student would sing songs related to his theme. The experience of performing in front of a large audience was a thrilling one for Yarrow, who discovered he loved it. He branched out to lead community sings on weekends.
Upon graduation he played in folk clubs in New York City, appeared on the CBS television show, Folk Sound USA
, and the following summer performed at the Newport Folk Festival, where he met manager and musical impresario Albert Grossman. One day, the two were at Israel Young's Folklore Center in Greenwich Village discussing Grossman's idea for a new group that would be "an updated version of the Weavers for the baby-boom generation ... with the crossover appeal of the Kingston Trio". Yarrow noticed a picture of Mary Travers on the wall and asked Grossman who she was. “That’s Mary Travers,” Grossman said. “She’d be good if you could get her to work." The lanky, blonde Kentucky-born Travers was well connected in Greenwich Village folk song circles. While still a high-school student at the progressive Elizabeth Irwin High School she had been picked out by Elizabeth Irwin's chorus leader Robert De Cormier to sing in a trio called The Song Swappers, backing up Pete Seeger
in the 1955 Folkways LP reissue of the Almanac Singers' The Talking Union
and two other albums. As well as performing twice with Seeger at Carnegie Hall, Travers had also played a folksinger in a short-lived Broadway play called The Next President
, starring satirist Mort Sahl, but she was known to be painfully introverted and loath to sing professionally. To draw her out, "Mr. Yarrow went to Ms. Travers's apartment on MacDougal Street, across from the Gaslight, one of the principal folk clubs. They harmonized on 'Miner's Lifeguard', a union song, and decided that their voices blended. To fill out the trio, Ms. Travers suggested Noel Stookey, a friend doing folk music and stand-up comedy at the Gaslight." They chose the catchy "Peter, Paul and Mary" as the name for their group, since Noel Stookey's middle name was Paul, and rehearsed intensively for six months, touring outside New York before debuting in 1961 as a polished act at The Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village. There the singers quickly developed a following and signed a contract with Warner Brothers.
Warner released "Lemon Tree" as a single in early 1962, then followed with the trio's version of "If I Had a Hammer", written in 1949 by Pete Seeger
and Lee Hays
to protest the imprisonment of Harlem City Councilman Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. under the Smith Act. "If I had a Hammer" garnered two Grammy Awards in 1962. The trio's first album, the eponymous Peter, Paul & Mary
remained in the Top 10 for ten months, in the Top 20 for two years and sold more than two million copies. The group toured extensively and recorded numerous albums, both live and in the studio. In June 1963 they released a 7" single of "Blowin' in the Wind" by the then relatively unknown, Bob Dylan
, also managed by Grossman. "Blowin' in the Wind" sold 300,000 copies in the first week of release and by August 17 was number two on the Billboard pop chart, with sales exceeding one million copies. Yarrow recalled that when he told Dylan he would make more than $5,000 () from the publishing rights, Dylan was speechless. On August 28, 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary appeared on stage with the Reverend Martin Luther King at his historic March on Washington where their performance of "Blowin' in the Wind" established it as a civil rights anthem. Their version also spent weeks on Billboard
s easy listening chart. By 1964 the 26-year-old Yarrow had joined the Board of the Newport Folk Festival, where he had performed as an unknown just four years earlier.
Yarrow's songwriting helped to create some of Peter, Paul and Mary's best-known songs, including "Puff, the Magic Dragon", "Day Is Done," "Light One Candle", and "The Great Mandala". As a member of that folk music trio, he earned a 1996 Emmy nomination for the Great Performances special LifeLines Live,
a highly acclaimed celebration of folk music, with their musical mentors, contemporaries, and a new generation of singer/songwriters.
Yarrow was instrumental in founding the New Folks Concert series at both the Newport Folk Festival and the Kerrville Folk Festival. His work at Kerrville has been called his "most important achievement in this arena."
He co-wrote and produced "Torn Between Two Lovers", a number one hit for Mary McGregor. He also produced three CBS TV specials based on "Puff, the Magic Dragon", which earned an Emmy nomination for him. In 1978 Yarrow organized Survival Sunday, an antinuclear benefit, and after a period of separation, he was once again joined by Stookey and Travers..
Yarrow and his daughter Bethany Yarrow, who is also a musician, often perform together. Together with cellist Rufus Cappadocia, they form the trio Peter, Bethany, and Rufus. They released the CD Puff & Other Family Classics
. In Spring 2008, the musical special Peter, Bethany & Rufus: Spirit of Woodstock
, featuring a live performance of the band, aired on public television.
Yarrow portrayed leftist intellectual Ira Mandelstam in the 2015 film While We're Young
Yarrow has long been an activist for social and political causes. What he did was not always popular. According to The New York Times
In 2000, in an effort to combat school bullying, Yarrow helped start Operation Respect, a nonprofit organization that brings to children, in schools and camps, a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each other's differences. The project began as a result of Yarrow and his daughter Bethany and his son Christopher having heard the song Don't Laugh at Me
(written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin) at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Operation Respect later quoted Yarrow as saying:
Operation Respect's stated mission reads as follows: "To [ensure] each child and youth a respectful, safe, and compassionate climate of learning where their academic, social, and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule, and violence."
On behalf of Operation Respect, Yarrow has appeared, pro bono
, in areas as diverse as Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bermuda, Croatia, South Africa, Egypt, Argentina, and Canada. In all, the program has been presented to many educational leaders and more than 10 million children. In some form, the project has reached nearly one third of all elementary and middle schools in America—at least 20,000 schools, in all.
The DLAM ProgramsOperation Respect developed the Don't Laugh at Me (DLAM) programs, one for grades 2 through 5, another for grades 6 through 8 and a third for summer camps and after-school programs. These programs make use of music and video along with curriculum guides based on highly regarded conflict resolution curricula developed by the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) of Educators for Social Responsibility. Because of the generosity of its supporters, Operation Respect is able to disseminate the DLAM programs free of charge. More than 145,000 copies of the curriculum have been distributed to educators since Operation Respect began. Operation Respect also offers assembly programs and professional development workshops designed to provide educators with the tools for effective implementation.
In March 2008, Yarrow told Reuters:
Yarrow produced and coordinated many events as a part of the anti–Vietnam War movement, including the winter and summer Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium, respectively. These events raised funds for antiwar political candidates and featured dozens of folk, rock, jazz, and blues stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon
, Miles Davis, Tom Paxton, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Steppenwolf. They were the first major concerts at such venues designed solely for such a purpose. The 1969 antiwar March on Washington, AKA The National Mobilization to End the War, in which some half-million people participated, was the largest of these efforts.
Yarrow's involvement in politics continued throughout the decades. He has also had a variety of contacts with politicians; he performed at John Kerry's wedding.
His leadership in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry inspired another generation. Of the song "Light One Candle", Rabbi Allison Bergman Vann has written:
In 2005, Yarrow performed in Ho Chi Minh City at a concert to benefit the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange; Yarrow pleaded with the Vietnamese for forgiveness of the United States.
Yarrow serves on the board of directors of the Connecticut Hospice.
In August 2006, he met with representatives of 35 organizations, including the League of Cities, the Academy of Education, Americans for the Arts, and Newspapers in Education, to unite them in a commitment to "shifting the American educational paradigm, to educating the whole child; not just in academics but in character, heart, social–emotional development. As we Jews say, 'let him be a mensch first; everything else will work out.'" On November 1, 2008, Yarrow performed across New York City for volunteers who worked for the presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama. On October 3, 2011, Yarrow, his son, and his daughter made an appearance at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests, playing songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved" and a variation of "Puff the Magic Dragon".
Yarrow has cited Judaism as one of the roots of his liberal views.
While campaigning for 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, Yarrow met McCarthy's niece, Mary Beth McCarthy, in Wisconsin. They were married in October 1969 in Willmar, Minnesota. Paul Stookey wrote "Wedding Song (There Is Love)" as his gift for their wedding and first performed it at St. Mary's Church in Willmar. They had two children, but later divorced.
In December 2000, Yarrow's Larrivee acoustic guitar was stolen on an airplane flight. In early 2005, fans spotted the guitar on eBay. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recovered it in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida and returned it to Yarrow. He did not press charges, as the person it was recovered from had not stolen it.
Yarrow performed the world premiere of "The Colonoscopy Song" on the CBS early morning program The Early Show
on March 9, 2010.
Yarrow has also acknowledged being an alcoholic, and sought treatment for the disease. He considers himself in recovery.
Yarrow is a longtime resident of Telluride, Colorado. Yarrow's son, Christopher, is a visual artist who in the late 2000s owned an emporium in Portland, Oregon, named The Monkey & The Rat.
Criminal conviction and pardon by President Carter
In 1970 Yarrow was convicted of, and served three months in prison for taking "improper liberties" with a 14-year-old girl who went with her 17-year-old sister to Yarrow's hotel room seeking an autograph. He has since apologized for the incident: "It was an era of real indiscretion and mistakes by categorically male performers. I was one of them. I got nailed. I was wrong. I'm sorry for it."
In 1981 Jimmy Carter granted Yarrow a presidential pardon for the crime. Nonetheless, it has occasionally become a campaign issue for politicians he supports. In 2004, Representative Martin Frost of Texas, a Democrat, canceled a fundraising appearance with the singer after his opponent ran a radio advertisement about Yarrow's offense; in 2013 Republican politicians called on Democratic Congressional candidate Martha Robertson to cancel a scheduled fundraiser with Yarrow.