MANCHESTER CENTER — The venue might be the phone bank for Sen. Barack Obama's poll workers. It might be a concert hall. It might be an intimate gathering for families at the Northshire Bookstore. But what it's about, for Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter Peter Yarrow, is community. "My belief is that music is an important way to allow people to sense each other's hearts," Yarrow said. "It allows them to feel that closeness and to build community — not just political, but human community."
Yarrow spent parts of several days in the final run up to the election at the Obama phone banks, singing for the workers and giving them a historical perspective on what they were doing. "In a way, this is a continuation of the march on Washington in 1963, when Peter, Paul and Mary performed," he said. This election year fits their vision, from 45 years ago, of a more equitable nation, in which all people took part in the political process. "As I sit here and talk to you, I'm not reflecting on my past; I'm involved in the present," Yarrow said.
Folk music, he said, is "by its very nature the music of understanding" our people and our history. "Human desire, vision, and hope are what really unite us."
That unity plays a major role in a project dear to Yarrow's heart — Operation Respect: Don't Laugh at Me. "It came about through an anthem, a song that named the program," Yarrow said. "We worked with Educators for Social Responsibility. It's a classroom-based tool to help bring the spirit of acceptance against the painful effects of bullying. It teaches children to solve conflicts in a nonviolent way, to create a constitution for caring."
The program is in some 22,000 schools in the U.S., and has been translated into Mandarin for use in Hong Kong, and into Croatian. It's in South Africa, and there has been a call for the program in Israel, Bermuda, across Canada, and more.
"It's a good tool," Yarrow said. "It uses music to create a platform of discussion to relate bullying and disrespect to acceptance and respect. The antipathy in schools is huge. It's not just the crises, like the killings in Columbine. In day-to-day life children are reflecting the disrespect they see in the world — on TV, in the business world, the political world, in their own families. It has become a world that is less about reaching out in understanding, and more about drawing lines and cutting people off.
"I want kids to live in a peaceful fashion, not only provide them the tools they need for academics, but the tools that allow them to grow in social ways, prepare them to be members of our society. Productive work and participation in democracy, that's the bedrock of our strength," Yarrow said.
The program is available, free of charge, through "the extraordinary generosity of the McGraw-Hill company. They've sent programs to 150,000 teachers, counselors and administrators," Yarrow said. And because of his relationship to Sterling, which publishes the two new books Yarrow has out, he is able to release the two dozen songs in the new books for the work of school teachers, music teachers, and Operation Respect. "They can enrich the program without spending any money," Yarrow said.
And for a good and simple reason. "My dream is to see the kind of music that inspired me, be in the lives of children," he said. While the music is out there, it can be harder to find. It used to be that you could turn on the radio and hear "Puff, the Magic Dragon," but now, radio stations have become so specialized, it's almost unheard-of. "If I can get into their lives, schools, homes, churches and synagogues with this long line of music, talking about struggles, people will be moved and remember why they're doing this," Yarrow said. "When we started, there was a lynching every three days. Now, win or lose, look at the miracle that has evolved: a person of color is running for president."
The folk movement is alive and well, especially in places like the Kerrville Folk Festival, which Yarrow helped to organize, years ago. "That has become a powerful platform for singers and songwriters. There are many remarkable people recording the music, they're just not known the way the pop acts are. Music has become a business." Some of the acts that have come through Kerrville have become well-known, though, and the festival is where Yarrow first heard the song, "Don't Laugh at Me."
Yarrow said that while folk music isn't as commercially successful as some other forms, right now, that's OK. "It's still in our psyche, and there may be a renaissance in folk music in the not-too-distant future."
Yarrow returns to the Northshire Bookstore on Friday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m., for a concert and booksigning with his two new children's books, "Sleepytime Songs" and "Favorite Folk Songs." In recognition of Yarrow's charitable work, donations will be accepted at this event for Vermont's S.H.A.R.E. Heat program, which provides assistance to families who need help with winter heating costs.
"I will be singing for an hour, to families, allowing the music to strengthen their sense of community," Yarrow said. "Anyone who comes can get a signature, you don't have to buy anything. it is an honor and a privilege to be able to do this, at this stage." Yarrow promised such favorites as "Puff," "Blowin' In the Wind," and "If I Had a Hammer," as well as children's selections.
Last year's concert with this music icon was one of the bookstore's biggest events of the year. While he is best known for his groundbreaking music with Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter Yarrow is also committed to fostering social justice and equity in society. As a performer, he has used music to inspire and bring people together to create a more just, peaceful and compassionate world. His work began in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, and continues today with his non-profit Operation Respect. "Sleepytime Songs" is a beautifully illustrated book of lyrics to timeless songs such as "Hush, Little Baby" and "Puff the Magic Dragon." It is accompanied by a CD featuring Peter's gentle voice to lull children to sweet dreams. "Favorite Folk Songs" features classic songs such as "Skip to My Lou" and "Sloop John B," accompanied by a CD with music by Peter, his daughter Bethany and cellist Rufus Cappadocia.
For more information on this and other events, call 802-362-2200 or 1-800-437-3700, or visit the Northshire Bookstore Web site at www.northshire.com.