Musician-singer-songwriter Peter Yarrow

Yarrow, a member of Peter, Paul and Mary, solo artist and longtime activist, talks about his latest project, the book and CD, I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog.

As one-third of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter Yarrow has earned multiple gold and platinum albums, as well as numerous Grammys, and has balanced his work in the group with solo projects and activism. He uses music to build community and catalyze change and wrote/co-wrote several songs, including "Puff the Magic Dragon." He also writes children's books and founded Operation Respect, a nonprofit that develops non-bullying curriculum. His latest project is I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog—a hit title for his musical group in 1967 and a favorite in classrooms and sing-alongs ever since—now a book with an accompanying CD.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Peter Yarrow has always believed music could change lives for the better. As part of the iconic trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, he and his fellow musicians made sure they were there when it came time to stand up for justice.

They were there 50 years ago this summer for the March on Washington, and just last month Peter Yarrow put together a special concert for the Sandy Hook Elementary School families, teachers and first responders.

He has a new children’s book out, based on one of the trio’s most-beloved songs, “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog,” which he dedicates to Reverends Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. So let’s take a look at Peter, Paul, and Mary first, singing “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog,” from their 20th anniversary concert.

[Clip]

Tavis: (Laughs) So Paul was here – Noel Stookey -

Peter Yarrow: Noel, yeah.

Tavis: – was here months ago, not too, too long ago.

Yarrow: I know.

Tavis: I had a great conversation with him, as I always do when you show up. You guys are forever busy. Whether you’re together or whether you’re apart, the work doesn’t stop.

Yarrow: No. The commitment is something that we inherited from the people in the folk field, like the Weavers and Pete Seeger. Paul Robeson.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.

Yarrow: Mary used to say, “If you sing me,” if you’re a folk singer, “You have to live me.”

The turning point for us came when we did participate in the March on Washington in 1963. I remember when we were singing, the people knew, they knew this song. It had been a big hit, and Ozzie Davis introduced us saying, “And now -” he said, “What should I say, Peter, to introduce you?”

I said, “Just say, “Now for a musical group that will express musically why we’re here together.” So we weren’t there to entertain.

We were there to express it musically, and to join other people. All of a sudden, a quarter of a million people were singing this song they knew. That moment belonged to them, when we would sing together, which is what this song is.

(Playing and singing) Well, if I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning. I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land. I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning. I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

And at the end, it says: (Singing) Well, I got a hammer, and I got a bell. And I got a song to sing, all over this land. It’s to hammer up justice, it’s the bell of freedom, it’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all, all over this land. This land.

Tavis: (Laughs) You still got it, Peter.

Yarrow: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: You still got it, man. You still got it. You still got it. (Laughs)

Yarrow: Pete Seeger is 93, he’s (unintelligible).

Tavis: I had him on my radio show a few weeks ago. We talked about you and the group and this song.

Yarrow: Yeah, well, see, these songs get handed down, and they get changed by each generation and made relevant. I was just there, just three days ago, in the, it’s called the Faith and Politics Pilgrimage – you should go on it sometime – where we retrace the steps of the Selma-Montgomery march, where Peter, Paul, and Mary played.

There’s a plane with 250 people, 30 members of Congress this year, led by John Lewis and others. There was a point where they needed to express their solidarity, and that’s when I sang “If I Had a Hammer” again.

We had just been recalling those little girls who first integrated, who are now doing extraordinary work. But Tavis, the important thing is, look, this song, “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog,” is about civil rights.

The big, blue frog at that time – and show the pictures as I sing a bit of it, okay?

Tavis: We will do that.

Yarrow: Okay. Because then we can talk about why a book, why in this time we need to have a Voters Rights Act, and who the big, blue frogs are today, besides the reappearance of racism in our society, which exists. All right, so turn around to the camera. (Playing guitar)

Tavis: I like this.

Yarrow: Can you look at it too?

Tavis: Can you see that shot halfway decent?

Yarrow: (Singing) I’m in love with a big, blue frog, a big, blue frog loves me. It’s not as bad as it appears, he’s got glasses and he’s 6’3″. Well, I’m not worried about our kids. I know they’ll turn out neat, Tavis. They’ll be good-looking because they’ll have my face, great swimmers because they’ll have his feet, yeah, yeah, yeah.

(Singing) I’m in love with a big, blue frog, a big, blue frog loves me. It’s not as bad as it appears; he’s got rhythm and a Ph.D. The neighbors are against it, and it’s clear to me – it’s probably clear to you – they think values on the property will go right down – the family next door is blue, yeah, yeah, yeah – Tavis, who are the big, blue frogs then, who are they now?

Tavis: Now, yeah.

Yarrow: We know in religion it is Muslims, lesbians, gays.

Tavis: Hispanics, immigrants.

Yarrow: Immigrants. Here we have this whole – so to say – and also, not just the family next door is blue or Muslim or whatever, or Black or whatever, or Jewish, but we’re trying to take the vote away.

There’s a big – in this last election – a big, big effort to make it more difficult or impossible for some people of a certain status or a certain group or poor or young to not be able to have equal access to voting.

Tavis: And there are a lot of people, based upon, just based on the questions that were asked and the statements made by Scalia and others, Justice Scalia, there are a lot of folk who believe that this provision of the Voting Rights Act, which we -

Yarrow: Is no longer (unintelligible).

Tavis: – will celebrate 50 years of -

Yarrow: Right.

Tavis: – in a couple of years, there are people who think that that’s going to be struck down when these decisions are read this summer.

Yarrow: Well, that’s what we’re afraid of. You see, in every generation we not only need to have voices that articulate. We also need to bind our hearts together in song. Now, this is a very gentle, sweet way to talk to kids about acceptance, so it’s part and parcel of the continued work.

Because the adults, we’re stuck. You’re not going to make me a bigot, and somebody believes that Jews are avaricious and Hispanics are lazy and Blacks are stupid, they’re going to go to their grave with that, and they’ll try and convince kids of that.

Tavis: Why a project aimed specifically at the children? I mentioned earlier you went to Sandy Hook, and we’ll talk about that in a moment, but why a project specifically aimed at the children about these issues?

Yarrow: Because the adults, as I said, are pretty much stuck in their beliefs, and we have to interrupt the cycle of pushing the other away. You’re no good, you’re stupid, you’re gay, you can’t eat lunch with me.

This is called the pyramid of hate. It builds from that kind of rejection amongst kids to bias, to hatred, to war, to genocide. It’s called the pyramid of hate. If we want to cut it off, we have to interrupt that cycle and let kids grow up in an environment in which they feel cared about, safe, where there’s no bullying, no name-calling, no humiliation.

Because if we don’t, then the culture becomes one that injures them, and then some of the kids will feel so bad about themselves they’re going to be depressed, they’re going to try and hurt themselves, and others will turn it around and try and hurt others. So we need this to have a society that cares about us. It’s not just a kids’ problem.

Tavis: Yeah. Over the next five years, starting now – you well know this. Give me a second to set this up.

Yarrow: Please.

Tavis: Over the next five years, we are going to celebrate, commemorate, a number of seminal moments in American history.

Yarrow: Sure.

Tavis: Much of this you were around for, and not just around for, as we saw at the March on Washington, you were not just around for it, but you were there. You were integral to it.

So you weren’t around 150 years ago, for the Emancipation Proclamation signing, but that celebration is this year, 150 years ago this year. But watch how this stuff starts to roll.

Later this year, 50 years since the March on Washington. Not even three weeks after that, 50 years since those four little girls were killed.

Yarrow: Were killed. I was just there at that church.

Tavis: In the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Yarrow: I was.

Tavis: I literally just wrote a – it’s posted now – I just wrote a piece for Huffington Post about this, and I’m trying to help lead the effort to get those four little girls the Congressional Gold Medal.

Yarrow: Yes.

Tavis: Since you’re watching this right now, and you know the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor this country can extend to any of our fellow citizens, or for that matter, anybody else around the world, like Nelson Mandela, who’s received it.

It’s the highest civilian honor you can receive, and these four little girls, these martyred children, these martyred heroines, as Dr. King called them, three at 14, one at 11, who got killed in that basement of the church is literally not even three weeks after the March on Washington.

King comes off this high of this “I Have a Dream” speech. Then he’s got to go to Birmingham to give the eulogy – the only time in recorded history we see Dr. King cry in person. He cried, publicly wept, trying to get this eulogy out for these four little girls.

So three weeks after the March on Washington 50 years ago, these three girls are killed. So we’re trying to get them the Congressional Gold Medal in time for this 50th anniversary on September 15th. So you were just there.

Yarrow: Yeah.

Tavis: You get past that, though, you get past the four little girls, then next year, 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of ’64. Then the next year, 50 years since the Voting Rights Act. So the next five years are going to be full of these anniversaries.

Yarrow: And then the anniversary of Selma to Montgomery.

Tavis: Selma to Montgomery, I skipped right past it. I was going back to that. Selma to Montgomery, you were just there for that event. I’m only raising that to give people, the viewers, just an arc of what happened 50 years ago that we’re going to be commemorating over the next five years.

Yarrow: Right.

Tavis: You were there for much of that, which leads to one simple question – how do you read the arc of American progress, or lack thereof, over those five decades?

Yarrow: It’s still important to hear from people who participated, where we sang, and I’ll give you just this one line here – (singing) The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.

And one of the voices, (singing) How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free? Imagine singing that at the March on Washington. You can put it in context, because that gives you the emotional sense.

Number one, it is genius, what has happened. When we started at the time of the civil rights movement – it started before ’63, you understand, a long time before, but it really got its momentum there.

In our nation’s capital there were signs above the water fountains in the bathrooms, “For colored only.” Marian Anderson couldn’t sing at Constitution Hall.

Tavis: That’s right.

Yarrow: In the South, you couldn’t – I just was in Birmingham, and there’s a Black mayor. This town has really grown – there was a lynching once every three days.

Now we have an African American president. That’s genius. I’ve taken this, the Operation Respect program that I’ll tell you about, to Israel and to Palestine, and other countries, as well as the United States, and there, some of the people say, you know what? We don’t like America for this, this, and this reason, when I was in Palestine – and I understand that – but we admire you because look how you can change.

If we can mobilize ourselves to celebrate what we have done, but also come to terms with the fact that we have a long road to travel, we will fulfill our promise. But we cannot just do it as adults, because as adults we’re in gridlock a lot. We have to educate our kids to accept each other, so our task is a lot through education.

That’s why I was at Newtown with this concert that I produced, with Dar Williams and actually a couple that lost their child, Francine and David Wheeler. She’s a wonderful singer. She’s part of the Flagpole Café that does a radio show. When she sang, there were no – you cannot believe the tears, you cannot believe the love and the heart. We have to unite and turn this pain into more love.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in the asking of this question, Peter, but why does it take these horrific tragedies to birth the love?

Yarrow: Well, I don’t know the full answer, but I was just looking at when we were in that church in Birmingham where the four little girls, there was one, there was a discussion, various people; one person who actually was the attorney that brought justice finally.

One of them was a banker there, and he said, “This is just the way it was. That’s the way it was.” Blacks were this. It was post-slavery. To make the scales fall from our eyes, what did it take? It took the courage, the determination – Peter, Paul, and Mary sang at the gravesite of Andrew Goodman.

It takes those incredible events to make us see what is going on. It’s taking a Hurricane Sandy now to let us seriously think about global warming. What is it that takes us away from being foolish, for being ignorant, for being uncaring? It’s inspiration and love and frequently built on the back of great, tragic history.

Tavis: I’m sure most of you caught this reference, but in case you missed that name Andrew Goodman, he of course is referencing Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner, those three young people -

Yarrow: Exactly.

Tavis: – who were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the movement. You said something earlier I want to go back to, which is – and I’ve had this experience myself as I’ve traveled around the world.

Yarrow: Sure.

Tavis: It always humbles me, but as an African American, of course, it always brings a great deal of pride up in me – as you travel around the world – and people are fully aware of this. That’s why Dr. King is so relevant now, all these years later.

Yarrow: Yes.

Tavis: But beyond Dr. King, people do understand that one of the shining moments in American history was our navigating our way through the civil rights era and ending up with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. Barack Obama is part of a 500-year journey. He didn’t just fall out of the heavens.

There’s a 500-year back story. When you travel around the world, to the point you raised earlier, and people see that as one of the shining examples of what America has done -

Yarrow: Yes.

Tavis: – and what they are capable of in their country. So “We Shall Overcome” is sung all around the world, because people understand that.

Yarrow: It is, and it’s sung – “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowing in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” These songs were sung when the walls came down in the Soviet Union.

We were invited to sing at the anniversary, the first anniversary of the bloodless revolution in the Philippines, because the nuns were putting the flowers in the muzzles of guns and tanks.

The point really that I want to make is that we need to have, in order to mobilize, we need to do it from the heart, not just from the intellect. The sad thing is that music of this sort is not so very much around. But if you just hear: (Playing and singing) We shall all be free, we shall all be free, we shall all be free someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.

See, the eloquence of the music transcends anything I could say. When I was marching a year after Martin was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was in Nashville, in Memphis, and I had on one side the publisher of the “Amsterdam News,” which is a Black paper in New York, very, very esteemed.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Yarrow: And the other side is his daughter. All of a sudden, a bomb went off. What happens to ordinary people if a bomb goes off? They lie down on the ground or they run away. Nobody moved. We all crossed our hands and began singing.

In the same sense that John Lewis, when they were in jail as Freedom Riders, because they wanted to integrate buses, right? They get to Alabama, Mississippi, they get pulled off and beaten up and thrown in jail. The ACLU comes and they’re going to bail them out.

They said, no, we’re not being bailed out. We’re not here to be bailed out. We’re here to call attention to this horrific injustice. It must end. So they’re there, and the jailers say what’s going on? They’ve got broken bones, they’re lacerated, they’re happy. Why are they happy? They’re so happy, they’re singing.

Well, tell them they can’t sing. So the jailer goes, “You can’t sing.” They said, “We’re singing.” “You’ll sleep on cold steel.” They said, “We’re singing.” They did not sing to entertain each other. They sang to have this kind of moment we just had when I sang “We Shall Overcome.”

This music must continue. This book, it’s not just about – it’s about loving each other. It’s about loving each other, and we stand on the shoulders, whether it’s gay and lesbian, women’s rights, whether it’s climate movement, on the shoulders of the civil rights movement, which was the defining time in our country when we figured out that if we stand together, hearts open to one another, we can change history.

Tavis: Peter Yarrow is love personified, and I always walk a little straighter, a little taller, but also with a lot more humility, every time he graces us with his presence in this studio. The name of the new book, the children’s book, is called “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog.” It includes a three-song CD of original recordings by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

I should mention this, since John Lewis’s name came up tonight a few times, John Lewis is the last living person of the major speakers at the March on Washington, and we expect to be joined by Congressman Lewis, an old friend of mine and Peter’s, on this program in the coming weeks as we move closer toward the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August of this year.

For now, Peter Yarrow, I love you, and I’m always delighted to have you on this program.

Yarrow: You, you are one of the reasons, because you’re young compared to me. I’m 74 years old. Do you know how proud we, those of us – we’re asked the question all the time, “Was it worth it? What changed?” You’re one of those things that came out of this – articulate spokespeople.

Tavis: I’m going to blush. Stop it, stop it, stop it. You don’t want to see a Black man blush (unintelligible). (Laughter) I love what Mary said many times that Peter referenced earlier tonight, which is “If you’re going to sing me, live me,” and that’s a high standard when you think about Peter, Paul, and Mary music. If you’re going to sing it, you’ve got to live it.

That’s our show for tonight. We’ll see you next time on PBS. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 21, 2013 at 11:31 pm