Peter, Paul & Mary’s Peter Yarrow & Noel Paul Stookey

Former Peter, Paul and Mary members discuss their late bandmate as a model for young women and showcase their new book and accompanying CD, The Night Before Christmas.

Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey are two-thirds of the '60s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Both have balanced their work in the group with solo projects and activism. Yarrow wrote/co-wrote several songs, including "Puff the Magic Dragon," writes children's books and founded Operation Respect, a nonprofit that develops non-bullying curriculum. Stookey oversees a multi-media organization specializing in children's computer software, TV shows and music and wrote "The Wedding Song," assigning his publishing rights from it to The Public Domain Foundation, which has donated nearly $2 million to charities around the world.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey to this program. The legendary folk musicians made up two-thirds of the Grammy-winning trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. Next year will mark, believe it or not, 50 years since they burst on the music scene with some of the most iconic songs of an entire generation.
Their latest project is this new book, a book for children, in fact. It’s called The Night Before Christmas. It also includes a companion CD. From the project, here they are performing “A Soalin’.”
Tavis: We were just chatting during that clip.
Peter Yarrow: Can you believe how beautiful Mary was? I mean, and what that spirit was? Every time I see it, she comes back so powerfully. Such a force.
Tavis: So where does the music go without Mary?
Yarrow: Well, first of all, Mary stays with it. She is here and she’s not here. Profoundly, her legacy and her presence is so important because, Tavis, she was a model for young women who didn’t want to play games, who didn’t want to lie, who didn’t want to try to sneakily get their way in the world so they could climb a ladder, but wanted to be who they were and accepted for what they were.
That’s what Mary always demanded and they looked up to her not as an academic who’s talking about it, but as a woman who personified it. Now that she’s gone, the reality of that has become ever more powerful in our hearts to recognize.
Tavis: I want to ask you both this question. I’ll start with you. Actually, before I ask that question, I got to say this first.
Yarrow: You’re a flip-flopper (laughter).
Tavis: I’m a flip-flopper (laughter). I was looking at my research and it took me like two minutes to figure out that you were Noel. I was totally in the dark about Noel. I know Peter, Paul and Mary. Where did Noel come from?
Noel Paul Stookey: Paul took over my name, you know. I mean, really, when our manager said, “If Noel changed his name to Paul, you could be Peter, Paul and Mary.” Well, the sound of that was just so beautiful. I said, “Well, I’ll take it on as a middle name,” but, hey, guess what? It works.
Tavis: Peter, Paul and Mary has worked quite well.
Yarrow, Stookey [singing]: “I was born about 10,000 years ago and there’s nothing in this world that I don’t know. I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing Ring around the Roses. I’ll whip the guy that says it isn’t so.”
Stookey: So the Peter, Paul and M sound was already there in folklore. We just did the ary (laughter).
Tavis: You guys are a riot. Here’s the question so I don’t get accused of being a flip-flopper. Here’s the question that I wanted to –
Yarrow: – a note. A flip-flopper is an intelligent person who changes position when the circumstance changes (laughter).
Stookey: Spoken like somebody who does it a lot.
Yarrow: A person who doesn’t do that is either ignorant or stupid.
Stookey: We’d like to refer to it as evolvement, so I’ve evolved.
Yarrow: That’s right.
Stookey: I have reconsidered my position.
Yarrow: Or devolved, and we could talk about that and nothing else.
Tavis: Let me evolve to this question, then.
Stookey: Yeah, do that.
Tavis: How did – I’ll start with you, Paul. How did the two of you become so progressive? I mean, it’s all in your music.
Stookey: That’s right.
Tavis: Your story?
Stookey: You answered your own question. Now I’m a young rock and roll kid from the Midwest. I come in, I got jazz chords behind me, I’m a total bugaboo about major sevens. I come into this folk citadel and these two beautiful people, Peter and Mary, were so involved with the folk legacy. They had followed the Weavers closely, they knew Woody Guthrie.
Yarrow: Mary recorded with Pete.
Stookey: So I learned firsthand and loved the ethic that was transmitted through this music. That’s why I said you answered your own question. You said – the music is so instructional. I swear it’s the world’s first infotainment. You know, you see a lot of women sitting around selling cosmetics now. But in the old days, guys out on the street would make up these songs about –
Yarrow [singing]: “Which side are you on, which side are you on?”
Stookey: – about the king or the queen or the oppressive circumstance that they lived in and that was information as well as it was entertaining to the people. So folk music has pretty powerful medicine for changing your heart.
Tavis: Peter, where do your progressive moves come from?
Yarrow: The same as Noel, except that my mother was born. She was a school teacher for 30 years. She was a member, when it was considered seditious to be a member, of – what is it?
Stookey: The teachers union (laughter).
Yarrow: The teachers union. It’s true. Don’t laugh. You could get fired for that.
Stookey: Still, still.
Yarrow: Well, not seditious, but Planned Parenthood. And she was a progressive from the word go and she absolutely lived that point of view. If you’re a Jewish kid from New York, that’s your background. Mary went and ringed the White House with other teenagers when the Rosenbergs were set to be executed. Mary had what’s his name, the great singer who went to Russia, the Black singer –
Stookey: – Paul Robeson.
Yarrow: Paul Robeson singing her lullabies. Her mother was a journalist; so was her father. So we were steeped in that. I grew up.
Stookey: But you can’t hear a song by Woody Guthrie or Pete Seger without being drawn into the defense of the defenseless, you know, taking a stand for community, you know? I mean, it’s a very engaging, powerful, moving –
Tavis: -so what’s it like, to your point then? So what’s it like – let me preface this by saying that I have said many times on this program that I personally regard Dr. King as the greatest American we’ve ever produced. That’s my own assessment. I could argue FDR, I could argue – you agree with me on this? We in agreement on this?
Yarrow: Yeah, but let go of my hand (laughter).
Tavis: I want some of the genius to rub off (laughter). I regard Dr. King as the greatest American we’ve ever produced.
Yarrow: Absolutely.
Tavis: I’ve been dying to ask you all this question, the two of you. So what’s it like when Ossie Davis, the late, great Ossie Davis, introduces you at the march on Washington and you perform these two songs? What’s that like?
Stookey: It’s like being welcomed to the Thanksgiving table by your pop, you know. We felt like part of the family.
Yarrow: I will answer it in slightly different terminology. That’s what made Peter, Paul and Mary strong. We each had a different take on it and, when we came together, it became authentically something we could express. To me, Mary was standing there with me during the speech. She took my hand and she said, “Peter, we are truly watching history being made.”
She totally got it. Standing in front of a quarter million people saying to each other, “Whatever brought us here, now that we are together and sharing this moment, we will never, never give up. We will pursue this.” And we did.
Obama could have been the target of a lynching, certainly would not in Washington, D.C. been able to use a water fountain that was except for colored only. The genus of America was that we [unintelligible] transition and the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King could put it not only in terms of policy, but in terms of poetry and inspiration.
Then when we sang – everybody knew this song because this was a very, very big song of the time. It says, “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.”
When we sang that and the people were singing, they were saying in their hearts – and this is what music does and this is why these books are important, to bring that kind of music back – they were saying, “We are connected with each other, we’re singing this song, our hearts are wed to one another. We will not give up this struggle because we have a sense of love and purpose” and people who have that, and with Mary and the last four years of her life, it was pure love.
Tavis: To your point about Mary, how did Mary – what was it about that moment that allowed Mary to know standing with you at the march on Washington that that moment was historical? How did she tap into that? I ask that because I talk to folk all the time who were part of historic moments and, nine times out of ten, they’ll tell you we had no idea that that moment was going to become what it became.
Stookey: Mary told me, and she repeated it several times on stage during our concert, that that was the first time, those 250,000 people, there was a – these are her words – a palpable feeling of hope. Now the last time you felt that was during the Obama campaign, wasn’t it? “Yes, we can.” Well, she felt it then.
Yarrow: There was one other thing. She said that that was the first time that she, who had been always marginalized in her positions because, you know, we were progressive and progressive in those early years was not a popular position, that she said that people standing together not in power, not without wealth, just ordinary people as they stood together could change things. And that’s when she came to the belief that that might happen. If people don’t believe that in our town time, Tavis, they are not going to act as if what they do matters.
Stookey: You know, to your point earlier about Dr. Martin Luther King, I think that much of what King has expressed is now just being discovered. I mean, this whole thing about the Vietnam War, you know, those letters from Birmingham jail, that’s powerful stuff and it goes far beyond the civil rights movement, even though the civil rights movement was important.
Peter and I and Mary discovered that, following the civil rights movement, we understood that it had evolved, speaking of evolvement, into the human rights movement because now we had concerns about improper use of nuclear power. We had concerns about the United States involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Tavis: But to your point, Noel, about Dr. King and the Vietnam War. As you both well know because you were there, King was demonized for that speech –
Stookey: – It was un-American.
Yarrow: By his own community.
Tavis: By Black leaders. He gets dis-invited to the White House by LBJ, every newspaper in this country in their editorials the day after he gave this speech, Riverside come down on him. I mean, we now recognize how right he was, but –
Yarrow: – he said, “And this is what we have to carry in our hearts” and that’s why he is the greatest American. He said, “There is no peace without justice or justice without peace.” And taking that, if there is injustice, there will be a fragmentation at the injustices so great, people will rise up. There is nothing that was achieved in the civil rights movement, to my mind, that was done through saying we will force them. He said, “We will embrace them, we will love them and inspire them.”
Stookey: Well, that was the whole nonviolent movement, and it continued through the Vietnam protests.
Tavis: Which raises this question for me. I told you we’d come back to this love notion. Whatever happened to the notion of love in our public discourse? Because if you in the Peter, Paul and Mary tradition or the Dr. King tradition try to talk about, even utter, the word love in public discourse today, you are laughed off the stage. Yet when you think about Bobby Kennedy, when you think about Dr. King, you think about Peter, Paul and Mary, you think about love. Whatever happened to love in our public discourse?
Yarrow: I want to answer this musically. “I’m a little boy with glasses, the one they call a geek. A little girl who never smiles ‘cause I got braces on my teeth.”
Stookey: “And I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep.”
Yarrow: “And I’m the kid on every playground, I’m the one that’s chosen last.”
Stookey: “I’m a single teenage mother trying to overcome my past.”
Yarrow: “Now you don’t have to be my friend.”
Stookey: “But is it too much to ask?”
Yarrow: And here it comes now. “Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names, don’t get your pleasure from my pain. In God’s eyes, we’re all the same. Someday we’ll all have perfect wings, don’t laugh at me.”
Stookey: We’re talking about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Yarrow: “I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall, I’m deaf, I’m blind. Hey, aren’t we all?” What has happened to it? It has happened. We have a nation with a bruised heart, Tavis, because the issue is not just policy change, but heart changes. And if we reach the children so that they can stop this cycle of hatred and fear, so they stop injuring each other of emotional violence and physical violence causing kids to take their own lives, what we will do is restore the heart of America. That’s our number one task and your number one task right here.
Tavis: If I were a cynic – I am not, but if I were a cynic, I’d say what’s wrong with Peter, Paul and Mary, since she’s still here, if they’ve been at this for all these years, 50 years, ain’t a whole lot changed. The world is scarier now than it’s ever been, the nuclear threats still exist, we are engaging in more wars now. While you guys are talking about peace, if I were a cynic, I’d say you all have been at this for 50 years and ain’t nothing been accomplished.
Yarrow: I would say look what has happened with the women’s movement. Women now – they couldn’t vote some time ago. They were playthings, they could be nurses or librarians or teachers. Look what happened. Look at the people in Congress. Look at the environmental movement that has grown up out of this. Look at mostly the civil rights movement that has changed.
Look, look. You are a manifestation. You are sitting on the shoulders of the civil rights movement. When I saw Obama win and I saw Jesse Jackson, who I don’t always love, but I always respect, crying, I cried with him because we are a nation that has made extraordinary change.
Stookey: But these things are not always measured by the numbers. Love is a very subtle, long-lasting, long-suffering and patient force in the world. I think, and if you listen to a lot of music, a lot of popular music now by, you know, U2, I think the word love is beginning to take on a significance in our lives that we didn’t use to have before. In the ‘50s when folk music first came along, everything was a love song. You know, it was all “Love me tender, love me true,” but then there were bossa nova versions –
Tavis: – that was very good, by the way.
Stookey: Thank you very much. I’m going to Vegas (laughter).
Tavis: Two shows nightly (laughter). Two drink minimum.
Stookey: But I’m saying that love is long-suffering and, to understand it in its larger and more collective appearance, that’s the new wave and the musicians are announcing its arrival and it will have an impact on this world.
Tavis: So why do folk legends end up writing children’s books?
Yarrow: Okay, let me explain. Because of the monopolistic realities of music becoming a business, the bottom line is dollars. The Live Nation, Clear Channel, all of that, they have their place. But it’s very hard for people like ourselves who were once at the top of the charts to even get a little wedge in, but in publishing, that has not happened. This book and the Puff, the Magic Dragon book that preceded it and Judy Collins Over the Rainbow with traditional songs –
Stookey: – Tom Paxton’s Marvelous Toy.
Yarrow: Marvelous Toy. These are a way in. Puff sold over a million copies. If I were to put out a – will you listen to this?
Stookey: Keep talking. I’m just doing background.
Yarrow: Okay, let me show the pictures while he’s doing it.
Tavis: Before you guys get out of here, since we’re talking about kids, we’re gonna sing a little bit of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” You got to take me back. We got to sing a little bit of that.
Yarrow: This is the song that’s on here.
Stookey: “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care in the hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds while vision of sugar plums danced in their heads. And mom in her kerchief and I in my cap had just settled down for a long winter’s nap. When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window, I flew like a flash” and on and on and on.
Tavis: You guys are killing me (laughter).
Stookey: Plus, it has “A Soalin'”on it and it has Mary’s last recording.
Tavis: Tell me the story about how you guys got her when she was fading to record this. How’d that happen?
Yarrow: Because she did not give up until May before she died September 16 in 2009. She was performing with us in a wheelchair and with oxygen. She said, “Oh, you’re gonna make this book. That’s wonderful.” I spoke to her and I said, “Would you like to do a narrated version?” And she did. And when you hear her speak it, it’s as if the three of us are sitting there. She’s in the middle as she ordinarily is and Noel says, “Would you like to…”
Stookey: Yeah. “Why don’t you read that poem by Clement Moore to all of us?”
Yarrow: “And we’ll sing along and play along” and that’s what we did.
Tavis: And recorded it. A little bit of “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” just a little bit and then you can close us out with a solo.
Stookey: We’ll do “A Soalin’.”
Tavis: Yeah, okay.
Stookey: And I take it that means you’re gonna sing.
Tavis: I’m with you, I’m with you.
Tavis: All right, that’s enough. I just wanted a little taste of that. All right, so before they play – hand me that book back, Peter, one second. Before you guys play us out with “A Soalin’,” the new book from Peter, Paul and Mary is called The Night Before Christmas just out in time for the holidays. I want to thank Noel and Peter for coming on the program. They’re gonna close us out with “A Soalin’.” Before they do that, thank you for watching.
Yarrow: Tavis, you’re the best.
Tavis: I love you back.
Tavis: You guys were amazing.
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Last modified: November 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm