Why Peter Yarrow Will Never Stand By, Sep 18, 2013
Peter Yarrow, one third of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, joined Peace Boat to perform his songs and talk about some of his recent social projects."I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all of the problems in the world. But when I sing with people it rejuvenates me – it gives me a sense of commonality. Music is my battery." So said Peter Yarrow, one third of the famous folk-trio Peter, Paul and Mary, who are particularly remembered today for their prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, having marched alongside Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama and Washington, D.C. in 1963. Inspired and influenced by other politically active musicians such as Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary have consistently called for justice and peace through songs such as 'If I Had a Hammer', 'Light One Candle' and 'El Salvador.' Between Jamaica and El Salvador, Peace Boat was honoured to have Peter Yarrow onboard to share his music, and to talk about some of the social projects with which he is currently preoccupied. In 2000 he co-founded Operation Respect, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to fighting bullying in schools, and was accompanied on Peace Boat by Mark Weiss, a former head teacher who is now the Education Director of Operation Respect.
Peter Yarrow's concert drew a large audience. For three hours, participants, clapped, sang and danced to his songs.Now aged 75, Peter is still an active performer. And so it was that, on the third night of his time onboard, Peter sang in front of a packed Broadway theatre for three hours, delighting participants with renditions of many of the old Peter, Paul and Mary classics, as well as some newer songs such as 'Don't Laugh At Me', which served as the inspiration for Operation Respect. "I'm a little boy with glasses/ The one they call the geek/ A little girl who never smiles/ 'Cause I've got braces on my teeth/ And I know how it feels/ To cry myself to sleep." The song is overtly about the playground cruelty of children, but Peter stressed that it is underpinned by a message that goes out to anyone who knows what it is like to be discriminated against. "We could equally have sung this song in 1963," he told participants. "Or it could be written for women who still don't get paid as much as men in the workplace. Fundamentally, it's about disrespect. Without respect for one another, we will not have peace."
"May all of the children in the audience come up to the stage?" Peter asked. "Anyone under the age of 30 is a child in my eyes!" Young people on Peace Boat joined Peter onstage to sing the famous song 'Puff, the Magic Dragon.'Peter remains a strong believer in the healing and unifying power of music, and moved the audience to tears by screening a video of a concert that he performed with the parents of the 20 children who were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook school, Connecticut in December 2012. "They asked me to come to the school and create a space for peace through my music," he explained, as the screen showed footage of Peter singing alongside a mother whose six-year-old son's body was found riddled with bullets. On Peace Boat, Peter proved to be a demanding performer, and would not allow his listeners to slip into passive roles, entreating them instead to sing with him, to clap, and to feel the music to their core: he wanted the concert to be a participative, two-way dialogue between musician and audience. Before having his lyrics translated into Japanese, he would ask the participants: "So what does this song make you feel? What do you think it's about?" One participant replied: "I think of Martin Luther King; I think of bravery and persistence." Another person said: "I feel after listening to your music that I know what's in your heart." Towards the end of the concert, Peter asked for all of the "children" in the audience to join him on the stage for a rendition of Peter, Paul and Mary's most famous song, 'Puff the Magic Dragon.' "Anyone under 30 is a child in my eyes," he joked. He was serious about his music - the passion and emotion worn clearly in his face - and yet he was an adept entertainer too, able to amuse people with his dry sense of humour.
In 2000, Peter co-founded 'Operation Respect', which works in schools around the world to try to combat bullying. He was joined on Peace Boat by Mark Weiss, a former head teacher who is now the Education Director of Operation Respect.Even back in the 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary would always try to include at least one song on each album that was written for children; they understood early on that change would never really happen unless they reached out to the hearts of young people. Peter expressed the conviction that "once people reach adulthood, it's very difficult to change them. If people hate, they hate. But if we can reach children before they become greedy, spiteful and mean, they're the ones who will change the course that we're currently on." Peter and Mark have devoted much of their time over the last decade to Operation Respect, working tirelessly in over 20,000 schools around the world – from New York to Bethlehem - to fight bullying. "Essentially," Mark explained, "Operation Respect is about creating respectful, safe and compassionate environments for learning, free of bullying, ridicule and violence." The organisation has developed a range of teaching materials that support teachers to tackle this issue, and also runs camps and workshops with young people to raise awareness about how they, too, can have a role in overcoming bullying.
"Social change doesn't happen when you teach people grammar and mathematics," Mark said. "It happens when you touch people's hearts." Mark ran a series of workshops with participants to introduce them to Operation Respect's mission and activities.While on Peace Boat, Peter and Mark ran a series of workshops to introduce participants to the 'Don't Laugh at Me Programme', an anti-bullying curriculum which Operation Respect runs with students and teachers. They are soon due to begin a pilot of the programme in four schools in Japan, and were therefore particularly interested in meeting any educators or aspiring educators onboard who might want to volunteer to be part of this project. Mark asked participants: "if you were a teacher, and you could teach children one lesson that they could carry with them throughout their lives, what would it be?" One participant answered: "I'd want to teach them to be resilient and to have a positive attitude to setbacks." Another said: "I'd want them to accept themselves for who they are and be able to appreciate their own beauty." The answers were diverse, but they proved Mark's point that "no one ever says 'algebra' in answer to that question." The exercise is designed to highlight the importance of social and emotional learning, which Peter and Mark believe tends to be grossly undervalued by education systems that, across the globe, almost universally focus on the importance of academic excellence. "Our schools are failing our children and our society," Mark said, "because they are neglecting to teach them the most important things. Social change doesn't happen when you teach people grammar and mathematics. It happens when you touch people's hearts."
Peter gave an emotional performance of 'El Salvador' on the night before Peace Boat docked in Acajutla.'Standing by' is not something that Peter, Paul and Mary have ever been able to do; they have always been passionate social activists, aligning themselves with a range of causes, from the Peace/ Anti-Vietnam War Movement to anti-nuclear campaigns. This has, at times, involved considerable bravery; Mary, who sadly passed away in 2009, spoke of constantly biting her nails during concerts at the thought that any one of the 20,000 people in the audience might have a gun. Yet this did not stop them from speaking out; indeed, it was after Mary's visit to El Salvador during the height of that country's Civil War that the group wrote the song 'El Salvador', angered by the fact that the US government was providing military and economic support to a government that was killing its own people. "Mary was really traumatised by some of the violent scenes that she witnessed during her trip there," Peter remembered. "So we realized we had to so something."
In San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, Peter talked to women who had lost their children during the Civil War that raged in the country between 1980 - 1992. Peter, Paul and Mary were angered by the US government's role in supporting this war, which inspired them to write the song 'El Salvador.'Peter sang 'El Salvador' to Peace Boat's participants on the night before we docked in the country, and the following day he joined participants on the study programme 'Tracing the Scars of the Civil War', whereupon he paid his respects at a memorial in San Salvador which bore the names of 30,000 people who died or were disappeared during the war. One young participant, Kawamura Satako, said at the end of the programme: "It was inspiring to have Peter Yarrow with us today in El Salvador. I feel I've learnt a lot from him. I used to think that war had nothing to do with me. Now, I realise that wars and conflicts happen because too many people turn a blind eye to injustice and cruelty. So I think that, when I get back to Japan, I'm going to try to be much more engaged in what's happening in the world. I want to stand up for what I feel is important." Peter Yarrow has witnessed a lot of tragedy and war in his lifetime, but it was in the end a positive message that he left with Peace Boat participants when he disembarked from the ship. "I do think the world has remarkably less cruelty in it than used to exist," he said. "Of course, it's not all good news - but trying to build a more peaceful, more respectful society is in the end the most glorious work in the world. We're getting somewhere."