Chances are you’ve heard Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version of the Dylan tune “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or perhaps you recall childhood memories of singing along to the classic song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Either way, it’s likely at some point you’ve hummed along to, heard, or swayed to the music of folk icon Peter Yarrow of the famed trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
On Jan. 2 (Thursday) at 7 p.m., Peter Yarrow will perform a benefit concert at the Sheridan Opera House with his trademark blend of acoustic folk and musical activism. All proceeds from the show will benefit Operation Respect, an organization he co-founded in 1999. The educational nonprofit aims to instill young people with the social and emotional skills needed to promote healthy learning environments free of bullying and violence. Operation Respect has been active in dozens of countries worldwide and visited tens of thousands of schools across the country, sharing a curriculum that draws on music and the creative arts to develop compassion, respect, self-love and empathy.
Activism for peace is nothing new to Yarrow; the singer-songwriter has been a strong presence in peace movements since the early days of Peter, Paul and Mary. The trio participated in countless anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the 1960s, and famously shared the stage with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington, during which the reverend delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. While performing at that historic protest before a quarter million people remains one of the top inspirational moments in Yarrow’s long career as an activist and musician, he cites working with young survivors of school shootings in his work with Operation Respect as the most meaningful.
“The most transformational experience I've had was working with students. It moved me in the core of my soul,” Yarrow said. “I saw their courage, and I saw their pain and trauma, and I saw that it was time to do something.”
In a recent project through Operation Respect, Yarrow, alongside other award-winning artists and filmmakers, has elevated the voices of the young survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida through a student-inspired songwriting initiative. On their recently released album entitled “Wake Up, America,” the students give voice to their grief and trauma while providing a powerful call to action and change.
For Yarrow, that action was to assist students in using music as a tool to not only help process their trauma and pain, but to emotionally connect students, those affected by shootings, and the general population to the issue of gun control and safety in schools. Drawing from his background in activism during the 60s and 70s, when the folk music revival played a major role in the mass protests of the era, Yarrow wanted to infuse music, with its unique power to connect people emotionally and to inspire action, into the modern student-led anti-gun violence movements.
“We need to have music in the movement of the students,” Yarrow explained. “We have nearly 230,000 students in America who were present for a school shooting. In the States we have prioritized the ownership of guns over the health and stability — and the lives — of our children.”
Yarrow’s conviction in the power of music as a tool for connection and peace goes back to his college days as a psychology student at Cornell. While participating in a course on American folk music, students in the class would play guitar and sing songs related to the theme together. Despite an atmosphere of materialism, superficiality, and prejudice in the Ivy League school that alienated Yarrow, he noticed a drastic change when students in the class sang together.
“I saw something amazing happen when they would sing together,” Yarrow remembered. “They would change. Something would affect them and it would go straight to their hearts. I recently had my 50th Cornell reunion, and students from that class would come up to me and say it was the most important experience they had at Cornell, realizing the dimensions of our humanity. It was an epiphany.”
All proceeds from Thursday evening’s show will directly benefit the Parkland Project through Operation Respect. Tickets for the show are $40, and for $100 guests can attend a pre-concert gathering with Yarrow that includes wine, cheese, and a signed book.
“We are so excited to have Peter Yarrow back to the Opera House stage. He is a living legend and great friend to the Opera House,” said Maggie Stevens, Marketing Director for the Sheridan Opera House. “His folk songs are recognizable to all and his passion for the causes he champions is unparalleled."