Nothing, not even a case of the flu, could stop Peter Yarrow ’59 during his performance Saturday night at the State Theatre. With a set nearly three hours in length, Yarrow entertained the mostly older crowd with songs and tales from his 50-year career with Peter, Paul and Mary, and on his own, as a singer, songwriter and activist.
Ithaca local and folk musician Joe Crookston set the tone for the show during his opening act. Stomping his feet while stomping out complicated timing on his acoustic guitar, Crookston encouraged the audience to sing along. Along with entertaining stories behind each song, performances of “Good Luck John” and “Fall Down As The Rain” were well received by the audience and provided a smooth transition into the next act.
Peter Yarrow was greeted with applause as he casually strolled onto the stage, making the audience laugh with a few good-natured pokes at the stage crew. He wasted no time starting his set with a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” encouraging the audience to sing. Stepping to the very front of the stage, Peter sung the chorus without a microphone, his powerful voice audible over the audience. It became clear immediately that he would not leave Ithaca without leaving a mark on the State Theatre.
Building upon the theme of participation, Peter talked about performing in Zucotti Park at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City the previous week, drawing cheers from the audience. Often reminiscing about his own political activism during the 1960s, he asked the audience to get involved with the modern political process “in their own way.” Though there was nearly a constant infusion of politics into gaps in the performance, it was hardly overbearing.
Inviting the youth (and youthful) amongst the audience to join “Uncle Peter” onstage, Yarrow explained how he had written “Puff, the Magic Dragon” with Lenny Lipton as a Cornell senior. Despite the theory that the song is about “smoking grass,” he claimed “there was no grass to be found at Cornell at the time” and that the song is really about childhood innocence. Peter sang with the help of those onstage, all of whom smiled as they sang the chorus.
He went on to explain that Cornell had changed since his years as a student, away from an environment he described as “so very conservative.” Yarrow described the Greek system then as “repressive and hierarchical,” with “sorority girls looking for bid pins and promises of marriage.” He told the audience a story of rush week, when two fraternity members had looked into his room, saw a guitar and a painting hanging on his wall, and passed him by. Yarrow described much of his later life as a reaction against what he experienced at Cornell.
“Operation Respect Dot Org” the audience chanted, repeating the domain name of Mr. Yarrow’s non-profit. The organization aims to promote understanding in schools all over the globe. Peter then performed the organization’s song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” an anti-bullying tune he wrote in response to the Columbine shootings, which has been translated into dozens of languages. The project now spans 20,000 classrooms worldwide.
After a fifteen minute intermission where he took song requests, Yarrow resumed the show with “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” followed by other Peter, Paul and Mary hits. Many of the requests were for songs featured in the Peter, Paul and Mary songbooks for children, demonstrating the lasting impact Peter Yarrow’s folk tunes have had on the lives of his listeners.
When I wasn’t singing along with Yarrow, I found myself listening to the moments when the entire audience carried a chorus while Yarrow played on his acoustic guitar. All-acoustic sets can be tough to perform effectively, but Yarrow’s skills on the guitar were well highlighted throughout the performance. Often asking the man behind the soundboards for “more guitar,” Yarrow remarked, “It sounds great in here!”
Next, Yarrow performed “The Great Mandala,” an anti-war song Yarrow referred to as “the best he had ever written.” Not to end on a down note, he transitioned immediately into “If I Had a Hammer” before bringing out Joe Crookston for a quick encore. The two stood face to face as they matched melodies on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a fitting end to an emotional and important concert for the Cornell alum.
Capping off his performance to a standing ovation, Peter assured the audience that despite changes for the worse, the people have the power to make things better. All it takes is peace, love and harmony. At one point Peter attempted to provoke laughter from a single woman in the audience with a hilarious laugh. “Stay with me forever, I love you,” he said. If only he could do the same and stay here in Ithaca forever.