No, as he will tell you, Puff is not about weed. Puff is about — like pretty much everything Peter Yarrow touches — love.
At 80, he’s as engaged as ever.
Maybe more than ever, given today’s threats.
Herewith, his 80th-birthday post this past Thursday:
Dear all, friends and allies,
I just finished writing this and I’m too tired to review and correct mistakes – yet because my birthday began only a few hours ago, and because I want to share it with you on my actual birthday, please forgive my mistakes and omissions and know how much I deeply appreciate and love you.
On the occasion of my 80th birthday, I’m reflecting on many things, including how fortunate I am to have been able to share almost 50 years with Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers, following a path blazed by Pete Seeger, combining our music with passionate advocacy for justice and equity and peace in “the good fight.” I am convinced that it was our mutual sense of purpose that allowed us to stay together for almost 50 years.
[THEIR GREATEST ALBUM? ONE OF THE GREATEST ALBUMS EVER? ALBUM 1700. — A.T.]
Remarkably, however — for many reasons, some wonderful and some horrific and a product of the woes of these incredibly difficult and frightening times — the work that the trio shared continues ever more intensely in my life. The challenges we face today desperately need the kind of spirit that was shared, musically and in other ways, in the 1960s when songs of conscience were an essential part of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and later movements that sprang from these. It was the Civil Rights Movement that taught our generation that ordinary people standing in solidarity, not necessarily people of power and wealth, could change the course of history. Conversely, we now see that the failure of people to stand together for decency and goodness can change the course of history in disastrous ways.
For me, being 80 does not mean that I am relishing the time to reflect and smell the roses. Rather, it is a time when, with greatest urgency, I feel compelled to join today’s struggle, that is in some ways unprecedented, so that I might help save our nation’s soul, its democratic institutions, and try to preserve fairness and justice that is under extreme attack.
It might seem strange to you that I’m not writing, at this point in my letter, an advocacy for “my perspective” on the issues, which of course I continue to do. More importantly, I am working most hard with an organization (better described as a movement) known as Better Angels, which seeks to bring oppositional voters together, not to change anyone’s political perspective, but in ways in which they come to realize (through powerful, honest, respectful exchanges) that the vast majority of Americans, from both sides, are rational, caring, and approachable, and that we all want the best for our country. I’m close to finishing a documentary, co-produced with Jim Brown the amazing documentary director who gave us Pete Seeger’s “The Power of Song” and three PBS pledge specials with Peter Paul and Mary, including our most recent “50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary”. Together, we traveled to Lebanon Ohio, a small Rust Belt town that voted 80% for Donald Trump, to film the second-ever Better Angels workshop. What we captured on tape was a group of 15 Republicans and Democrats who, prior to this meeting, were willing, though skeptical and anxious, to even speak to one another. However, through the success of the interactive platform created by Dr. Bill Doherty, co-founder of Better Angels, the participants discovered that not only did they truly like each other as people, no matter their opposing political beliefs, but they also found that all agreed much more than they disagreed on basic values and their vision for America. This came out of 13 hours of exchanges. This workshop that we documented, now shortened to 6 hours rather than 13, helped validate and launch an effort that today has resulted in over 100 Better Angels workshop gatherings throughout America with over 100 moderators and trainers who are spreading the gospel of, “We can agree to disagree on some things, yet we can still respect and honor each other.” My thesis is that we must, absolutely must, come together in this way or our country is in jeopardy as a democracy and a place of good will.
This Better Angels documentary will be shown on PBS (date tba) with the sponsor station gratefully being TPT, the Twin Cities’ PBS flagship station in the Midwest. If you want to give me a great birthday present, please go to www.better-angels.com and find out what they are doing — because any of you could become a trainer or a participant at the workshops and thereby help save America from being incapacitated by the vitriol, mistrust, fear, and hatred that has emerged powerfully in our midst.
There might well come a time where we must, absolutely must, stand together or watch the very essence of our ethical morality as a nation collapse. For example, if a law gets enacted that makes it the case that all those who have been deported, if they return illegally, will be put in detention camps and potentially subjected to “extraordinary rendition”, meaning torture. Under ordinary circumstances, I am convinced that our nation would rise up as one to forbid this law’s implementation but, today, the issue would be politicized and both sides would likely go along with the party with which they identify. Morality and immorality would be trumped by party loyalty. This is, in a word, part of how nations become tyrannical; people are too divided, too fearful, and too mistrustful to be able to unite to do the right thing even though the law violates the essence of their own history or their country’s ethical traditions. This kind of division is part of the reason that a previously enlightened Germany became Nazi Germany.
Most recently, I have begun organizing an effort that might turn out to be the most important one I have attempted in many a year. It’s a long story but, in essence, a week ago I traveled to Parkland with a group of 12 activist singer-songwriters. This group, among others, included my daughter Bethany Yarrow, two members of The Peace Poets, a Black Lives Matter singer-songwriter-organizer now living in St. Louis, a Native American political activist-performer/songwriter, Steve Seskin (who wrote “Don’t Laugh at Me” with his brilliant and caring songwriting partner, Allen Shamblin), David Broza (the quintessential Israeli peace activist and co-creator of Operation Respect in Israel, which is used by 63% of the school counselors in Israeli schools, both Arab as well as Jewish). Each of these writers has an impressive profile but the fact is I invited only songwriter-performers who prioritized music of conscience over music as entertainment. All of them are deeply committed to using their music to build community and bring common voice to those who want to stand up for justice and humanity. The results, as people will soon see, include the creation of a 13 songs and chants over two days, not written by the songwriters, but written by the students themselves. And the results are incredible. Mark my words; beyond the advocacy carried by the Parkland students, we shall soon see song-writing and music connected to many movement efforts in ways that are reminiscent of the 1960s. At least that is my hope.
It is the children and the youth, I believe, as well as the brave women of our nation, who are leading the way by inspiring the kind of commitment that might, we can only pray, deliver us from the frightening possibilities ahead of us.
Of course, over the past 20 years, as some of you might know, there is an organization called Operation Respect that has a classroom-based program called ”Don’t Laugh at Me”, after the song mentioned above, that inspired the creation of this educational non-profit. It is an effort that has reached over 22,000 schools in America, over 63% of the schools, both Arab and Jewish, in Israel, has traveled to Palestine, to Ukraine to Hong Kong, to Croatia, to Mexico as well as other foreign nations. Although “Don’t Laugh at Me’ and its social-emotional classroom based program is mainly regarded as an anti-bullying effort, the truth is that long before bullying, rudeness, and mean-spirited behavior reached the highest levels of leadership in our American government, Operation Respect was working to create school environments in which children honored and valued each other’s character, kindness, and service to one another over money, fame, and material things. Yes, Operation Respect is an anti-bullying organization, but it addresses this by helping to create a loving, caring environment where bullying and cruelty, by common consent of the students, is diminished if not all but eradicated.
Having said all this I can only tell you that my life has become, in large part, a continued series of events in which I participate, or events I help to organize, like the Unity Concert for the return of the Black Hills, created in large part by my daughter Bethany. Another time we traveled to Standing Rock where her voice helped give our first Americans the courage and sense of support they needed to carry on.
There is also my son, Christopher, whom I have often referred to as the most loving, generous person I have ever known, who sings and plays the washtub bass with me at concerts with such love and respect that the audience frequently tells me that the highlight of the show was seeing the relationship that Christopher and I share.
The list of reasons for my gratitude include the formidable words that have been written and spoken by my granddaughter who is a force of nature at the age of 11, who writes with such beauty and power that she gives me hope whenever I am in need of it.
In sum, I am more committed and more dedicated and working harder than ever before in my life and I could not be more grateful for all of that, even though I know that I have to back off somewhat, sometime soon because, as you know, I am turning 80 today and, as a good organizer I’ve got to, as Pete Seeger instructed me to take care of myself, or, he warned, he would consider me to be a deeply flawed organizer.
So, happy birthday to me, and my thanks and gratitude go out to many, many, many whom I have met and with whom I have walked these four score years.
To the greatest influence in my life, the one who loved me most as a child and to whom I owe all I possess that is good in me, to my mother Vera Yarrow, I want to remember you in this moment. I am you; I carry on where you left off, as will my daughter, son, and granddaughter after me. I honor you and all that you gave me, although I never saw you with any objectivity or any real understanding until you were gone. Thankfully, in many ways you are more with me now than you were in life. I am blessed.
With love and great gratitude,
Now that, I would say, is a life well lived.
And he ain’t done.