Musician-activist Peter Yarrow

One-third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, Yarrow introduces his children’s book, based on one of the trio’s most beloved songs.

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 of live performance]

Tavis: 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: 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, and I remember when we were singing, people knew, they knew this song. It had been a big hit.

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.”

We weren’t there to entertain. We were there to express it musically, and to join other people. All of sudden, a quarter of a million people were singing this song they knew. That moment belonged to them, when we were singing together, which is what this song (unintelligible).

(Playing guitar and singing)

And at the end, it says: (Singing) This land.

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

Yarrow: See – (unintelligible).

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

Yarrow: Pete Seeger is 93, he’s gonna be 94.

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: 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.

Tavis: 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.

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.

Tavis: 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. 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.

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

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

Last modified: December 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm