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A Folk Hero: Peter Yarrow reflects on how his music helped change America 

Yarrow intends to build a little community at the Tower Theatre on Saturday night.

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 10 on the Billboard national pop singles chart.

But one day was different.

This was not the trendy folk clubs of Greenwich Village or the friendly confines of a Northeast coffee shop.

The date was August 28, 1963, and the place was the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a brimming mall on a balmy, 84-degree day in Washington, DC. where 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," Yarrow recalls with a tone that suggests the memory is as clear and 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. 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," he says during an interview last week.

Time has done nothing to dull Yarrow's lifelong social activism paradigm.

"The ethic behind songs of conscience doesn't change," Yarrow asserted, "Even though the issues are altered from generation to generation."

Yarrow, through his music, his organizing prowess and his presence, 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 among 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 says.

"The song is called 'Don't Laugh at Me.' It was written by Steve Seskin and Allan Shamblin. When I was at the Kerrville Folk Festival about 15years 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," he says.

Yarrow was so moved that he not only brought the song to his singing partners, Mary and Paul, he started Operation Respect. Founded in 2000, the nonprofit organization brings to children, in schools and camps, a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each others' 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 than 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 the program as an anti-violent or an anti-bullying program, Yarrow says "the real heart of the program is to create a little society among 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 and of fear that feeds this incessant chain of abuse that leads to mean-spiritedness and a fractured society, to aching hearts and to war."

And, Yarrow intends to build a little community at the Tower Theatre on Saturday night.

"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," he says.

Just like that day in 1963.


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