Musicians-activists Peter Yarrow & Paul Stookey

Yarrow and Stookey recount the impact of their five decades at the crossroads of music and political action.

Peter Yarrow and Noel "Paul" Stookey are two-thirds of the 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Both 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 (Music2Life), which has donated millions to charities around the world.

For the first time and in their own words, the newly published book, Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, visually tells the story of the iconic trio's 50-year journey leading America in discovering the passionate soul of folk music.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Peter Yarrow and Noel “Paul” Stookey, the two surviving members of Peter, Paul and Mary, about the publication of their new text titled “Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life,” which chronicles the trio’s five decades at the epicenter of music and the fight for social justice in this country.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation about the life and legacy of Peter, Paul and Mary coming up right now.

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Tavis: Ever since the early 60s, Peter, Paul and Mary have been at the crossroads of music and political action, and the trio’s unwavering commitment to social justice is the narrative spine of a new text titled “Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life,” which also contains many never-before published stunning photographs.

Before we start our conversation with Peter and Noel, let’s take a look at the trio singing one of the anthems of the civil rights movement. You guessed it, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”


Tavis: I don’t care how many times I hear that, how many different ways or versions of it I hear – I’m talking about the trio – it never gets old, never gets old to my ears. Does it get old to you when you’re asked to perform it?

Peter Yarrow: Not only does it not get old, not only is it – when you hear – just listen to this. We’re going to sing a couple lines and you’re going to hear Mary’s voice in our hearts.

NoelPaulStookey: Even though she be absent.

Yarrow: Yeah.


Tavis: You guys kill me, man [laugh]. Every time you come on this show, when I know you’re coming on the show, I just get tickled like a little kid, obviously, ’cause there’s so few guests who come on the show and they just like kill it every time on the spot, just jump right into it. I love it and, as I said a moment ago, I don’t care how many times I hear it. It never gets old.

Yarrow: And do you feel that Mary continues through us?

Tavis: Absolutely, absolutely.

Yarrow: I mean, that music is not gone and the time and the need for it is greater than ever.

Stookey: Greater than ever.

Yarrow: And it doesn’t have to be these songs. It just has to be songs with a similar intent, and there are many people writing them.

Stookey: And you know what you picked to show here were the kids. You know, I expected to see the march on Washington, you know, but this is…

Tavis: That’s why I didn’t go that direction.

Stookey: The younger generation, yeah.

Tavis: Let me talk about a couple things relative to the text in terms of context. Then I’ll get into the content of the book. Contextually, as many times as I’ve had a chance to talk to you guys together on this program together and individually, we’ve never had a chance to unpack the character that the village is in your story. Talk to me about the village.

Stookey: I think it was bad rapped when you saw the movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis” because it painted a very dark picture. And actually what Peter and I experienced in the village with Mary was a great deal of hopefulness not only about the equity between people, but the vision that the music shared and the hopefulness for the country.

I mean, this was a radically integrated group from different countries, different races and getting along just swell for no money, but all for the vision and the love of it.

Yarrow: Yeah. It was not a time in which people were competitive, were thinking about fame or success. It was we felt that we were in a crucible of change and excitement and the privilege of that on a day-to-day basis was extraordinary. I must say that kind of spirit does not characterize the music business anymore, you know, but that was the time.

Tavis: Speaking of that kind of spirit not being at the epicenter of the business today, something else I think is a bit different is what coffee houses meant then in the village or elsewhere and what they mean today.

When I think coffee house today, I think Coffee Bean, I think Starbucks, I think people plugging in their iPads or iPods or laptops and sitting around all day. Coffee houses meant something different then, and you guys basically make the point that the coffee house was your classroom.

Stookey: Yes, it was. It was the nexus.

Tavis: That’s a great phrase.

Stookey: It was the nexus, the connection point, you know. How surprised we were when, after playing chess for so many days and months, we should find a stage replacing the table.

I mean, then begin entertainment, then begin the outreach and the connection between music and the community. Then, unfortunately, alcohol arrived and changed the nature of those clubs and more into nightclubs than, you know, social gatherings.

Yarrow: Yeah. At the end of the night, if you were performing there, they would pass the hat and then you divide up the money. And the people who came there would give according to their enthusiasm. See, we’re essentially busking in a coffee house [laugh] and then you’d go to Chinatown and have a bite to eat for a couple of bucks.

Stookey: And spend everything you earned [laugh].

Yarrow: And get up at 3:00 in the afternoon and do it again. It was heaven.

Stookey: Yeah, it was.

Yarrow: And, you know, out of that came a Bobby Dylan. Out of that came…

Stookey: Dave Van Ronk…

Yarrow: Dave Van Ronk and Odetta and Tom Paxton and Judy Collins and Richie Havens…

Stookey: And Arlo Guthrie, and even some of the comics, Bill Cosby.

Yarrow: And Noel “Paul” Stookey.

Stookey: They had a platform and the platform was created not because they wanted to make a book, but because they had something to say. And who did we get this message from? We inherited from The Weavers, we inherited it from Josh, we inherited from Woody…

Yarrow: From the union movements, you know, where we would sing…


Yarrow: And we used to sing…


Yarrow: No more fracking, fracking…[laugh].

Stookey: All right, all right.

Tavis: Yeah. The lyrics change. The times change. Now we’re talking about fracking, yeah.

Yarrow: And that’s where it goes, and these songs still remain. Kids are singing songs of this sort, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in their summer camps. This is not gone. It’s just gone from pop music.

Stookey: But the message is being rediscovered in hip-hop, even Paisley, you know, in country music. I mean, there are artists who are saying, wait a minute, I have a platform, I have a responsibility. I have a responsibility to my own conscience as well as my constituents.

Tavis: I want to go back to something that I heard you kind of quietly push out there that the audience might not have heard over the music. You were talking about the comedians of the day, Cosby and others…

Stookey: Woody Allen.

Tavis: Yeah. There was another comedian whose name you mentioned.

Yarrow: Noel Stookey [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Stookey: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yarrow: And reminiscing about this, you know, we never had the space onstage to talk about this. When we were doing interviews, we would talk about the next cause we were involved in. After Mary’s passing, two years after that, we started working on telling the story of what we shared.

And this book is a legacy piece and John Kerry, who wrote the introduction, was a very close friend of the group at the time that he was head of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He kind of nails it. He said this book is not just an overview of the past. It is an invocation to do this once more. If we stand together, this can be done.

Tavis: I’m glad you explained that. Let me just read a line, though. This is from the back of the text, a gorgeous book which we’ll get into in a second here. I love this line from Secretary of State John Kerry. “They changed the cultural fabric of this nation forever.” Those are John Kerry’s words.

I knew the backstory about the John Kerry relationship, but I’m glad you explained that, Peter, because I think there might be a disconnect for some people knowing the kind of music and the kinds of social justice work this group has been engaged in for all these years with a government official, the head of the State Department, writing the foreword to the text.

Yarrow: Well, you know, we met a lot of people. There was a song – and this is discussed in the book. You see, people, they know about the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.

But there we were later on in the anti-apartheid movement getting arrested together and we sang a song that was written for the occasion of a devastation with Bishop Tutu. And when we met Nelson Mandela, he said, “I heard that song on Robben Island.”

You know, there’s something in the context of what we were experiencing. People say, well, what kept you together? Well, you look at the results of each of these things. For instance, right here in L.A., we did something called “Survival Sunday” to stop these nukes being put like on the San Andres fault near Diablo Canyon.

Look, this had a result. They stopped from going online or if you read in Robert McNamara’s book about the response to the march on Washington which we performed in 1969 for a half a million, all of a sudden you say, well, of course, they went on. They got all this encouragement. There was evidence that we were going forward.

In the meantime, we go from the time when, in the civil rights movement, when we marched with Martin Luther King. If you were a person of color, you couldn’t use, in our nation’s capital, a public bathroom unless it said for colored only, and there was a lynching every few days.

Now look what’s happened. The racism that’s reemerged in this country, profound and horrific for, you know, young Black men, but what progress we’ve made. I was just being asked that. Well, did we do anything? And not just we? All the people involved. It was amazing.

Stookey: You know, even in your book, “Death of a King,” where you talk about the fact that budget is a moral consideration, I mean, where King talked about it and that the bombs that were dropping in Vietnam were dropping in the ghettos…

Tavis: The barrios of American cities, yeah.

Stookey: It was pressing it. I mean, really, just like his anti-war stance was. You see now the economic disparity and what was Occupy Wall Street except. And what was the music of Occupy Wall Street? Again, it’s not mainstream because there’s so many issues for us to deal with, but you just got to get out there and sing.

Tavis: I want to ask…please, go ahead.


Stookey: I know where this is going.


Stookey: 1972?


Stookey: 19 years ago.


Stookey: And then in Chicago…

Yarrow: And talk about Martin Luther King and Gene McCarthy, talking about the dollars for bombs deprive us of the honorable use of our resources so that we can be a caring nation.

Tavis: I want to go back to this group staying together, the point you were making a moment ago, Peter, what kept you together all these years. Let me just say, first of all, that I can die and go to heaven now. Noel read my book, y’all. Did y’all hear that [laugh]?

Stookey: He’s not supposed to say that on the air.

Tavis: I think I just did. You read my “Death of a King” book. I say that seriously. I am honored to know that you actually took a book of mine – of course, it is a book about Dr. King – but that you read on it, pound on that, man. I love you for reading that text. It was a labor of love for me and I’m glad you read it.

Stookey: I bet it was.

Tavis: Glad you read it.

Stookey: It showed.

Tavis: But let me go back to this notion that Peter raises of all the things in the social justice work that kept you together. So The New York Times – I’m sure you guys saw this. It was kind of funny to me. They kind of outed you guys about this book coming out on your 50th anniversary.

Stookey: And like that was the focus.

Yarrow: It’s five years after.

Tavis: I know. The Times’ point was you guys have really been together 54 or a little more than 54 years, but the book celebrates 50 years, and what was your response to that, your reaction to that?

Stookey: I like Peter’s response best.

Yarrow: You know, we needed two years to process Mary’s passing, thank you. We were not about to hop on this moment and say let’s make money. We took two years. Then we started examining what it was in our hearts that would be a way to express this legacy and an invocation to the next generation.

We are talking about a 50-year span not in music. “Oh, let’s do something to make money because it’s this year.” This is not that kind of piece of work. And that fatuous, very, very vapid person who did not even read the material was insulting.

Stookey: Yeah. I think the thing that stands out about the text, if we do say so ourselves, is that it’s not just a description of who was where, but how we felt about being there. What went into getting us there and keeping us there?

Yarrow: And how we viewed the things we were involved in, you know, rather than just talking about them, how we made decisions about the songs we sang. How we, you know, worked out – you know, we functioned by consensus.

Stookey: And why is this important? Why would it be important to anybody else who’s not in the music business? Because metaphorically, it’s a blue print that we all need. I mean, I learned from seeing how you relate to the people that you work with here, and that’s what makes – I got to tell you folks.

That’s what makes this show bubble is because there’s a beautiful harmony between all the people that work here, the cameramen, the makeup people, the people who welcome you at the door.

Yarrow: Yeah, it spreads.

Stookey: So this kind of metaphor is exactly what the book is talking about and that’s the encouragement for us to live civilly with one another, be able to have a discourse.

Yarrow: My perspective – I’m interrupting you now…

Tavis: No, please.

Yarrow: Is to create a little pool of peace. Don’t think of peace only as end of hostilities between nations. Peace is what you create in your life. In this situation, peace is what goes on backstage with the people who are doing the makeup and putting the – peace is – how do you think that gay marriage came along?

Didn’t come along because some wise old guys in the back room smoking cigars said it’s time to pass it. No, because people lived it and made those pools of humanity and justice and peace. And that’s what we have to keep doing in spite of whatever else is going on.

Tavis: Let me go back inside this book because there’s so much to love about this. It is a gorgeous coffee table – I mean, it’s a gorgeous piece of work. It’s on my coffee table now at my house already.

Stookey: Well, open it up.

Tavis: But I want to ask, to that very point, about opening it up, how the choices were made to put some of these photos – I know Jonathan will put some on the screen while we’re talking about it. The photo selection is amazing.

Yarrow: She did that. Our manager who was kind of really, really there, and she also represents Mary. She’s amazing.

Stookey: Martha Hertzberg.

Yarrow: Martha Hertzberg. She was the curator of the photographs for this.

Tavis: The photos are amazing.

Yarrow: We wrote – and Mary wrote, by the way. Even though she was gone, she was a prolific writer.

Stookey: Truly a ghost writer.

Tavis: Literally, yeah.

Yarrow: She wrote Op Eds. She wrote essays. She wrote poetry. So we could really include her. But I want to sing a song for you because…

Stookey: No!

Yarrow: Yes.

Tavis: I can’t imagine.


Stookey: Oh, yeah!


Tavis: [Laugh] I’m sitting here laughing. I’m thinking I’ve been doing this, what, 20 or 25 years on TV and radio and you guys are the only guys that will come on and do six or seven songs a set [laugh]. I better get an artist to do one or two songs. This is a complete set of like seven songs in one conversation. Has it been worth it all these years? All the sacrifice, Noel?

Stookey: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, for me I got to say I have more of a balance in my life than Peter. Peter, he’s the flag carrier, man. You were out there with Operation Respect. You’re on the road all the time.

Yarrow: It’s intoxicating, but at this point, you know, being 76 and Noel’s a few months older than I am, I don’t feel – the only thing that’s going to hold me back are the limitations of my health. Because for me, this is heaven. I mean, why would you not do something that is so incredibly rewarding? If you can go there…

Tavis: Let me answer that because today the only way we define reward is in money. That’s why.

Stookey: That’s right, that’s right.

Yarrow: Well, that’s the real problem.

Stookey: And so old school.

Yarrow: Let me give you another piece. I believe what we’re dealing with is the black hole of empathy in our nation. If we want to reconstruct what we need in order to have a policy in terms of the environments, we don’t continue to catastrophic climate change, which is already happening, it comes ultimately from our caring about each other. But if you look at the absence of heart and what is caring about each other? The big L. It’s love.

Tavis: I’m going to close on that note. I could do this for hours. I just heard another one, though, the black hole of empathy. It happens every time I go back. I’m telling you, I take this transcript. I highlight it ’cause they drop so many great morsels that are worth marinating.

I love you both. I love you both. Ain’t nothing you can do about it. I just love you. The book is finally out. It’s “Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Music and Life” with a beautiful foreword, I might add, by our current Secretary of State, John Kerry.

And the photos, I’ll tell you, the photos alone will get you. It is a wonderful story and beautifully told. So thank you both for coming back on again. You honor me every time you show up.

Stookey: You honor us, Tavis.

Yarrow: This is the only place where we can be like this, Tavis.

Tavis: You’re welcome…

Yarrow: This is Freedom Land right here.

Tavis: You’re welcome back here any time.

Yarrow: Thank you.

Tavis: What you doing tomorrow night, by the way [laugh]? That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 19, 2014 at 3:24 pm