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Peter Yarrow: An American Journey, Ending Bullying, and the Story of the Hungry Goat!

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Rob: Where did you grow up? Where did you start?

Peter: I was born in New York City. My mother was a teacher for English, Speech, and Drama. I grew up like an ordinary New Yorker, except my mother, after a very painful divorce had to support two children on a teacher's salary.

Rob: How old were you when your parents separated?

Peter: I was five years old.

Rob: You said it was painful, but did it have an effect on your life?

Peter: My mother was sick with the divorce and had a very serious depression afterwards. So when I saw my mother having a breakdown, of course it affected me dramatically. In those days you couldn't get a divorce in New York State. You had to go to Reno, Nev., and establish residency there and then get a divorce there and then come back to New York. But my mother worked very hard and she kept her eye on what was important while bringing me up.

Rob: Did you ever see your dad again?

Peter: I did before his passing, yes, but it was only in extraordinary situations that brought us together. So in a sense, that was a healing thing, but he was 74 at the time.

Rob:People's lives seem to be shaped by something that happened in childhood, and it's usually some sort of trauma, for lack of a better word.

Peter: I really have never explored that idea. I think I responded by feeling that somehow for the survival of myself and my mother and my sister, I was going to have to be in a position to make sure things worked out. How gutsy she was in terms of never stopping work and making sure that there was money for violin lessons and art class.

That changed when I went to high school. That was a very formative period in my life that relates very much to what I've been doing all these years. I went to the High School of Music and Art, one of the two so-called "fame" schools. Everybody who went to either of these two schools will report to you that it was four of the most glorious years and it was an intersection of academic, creative, social, and political life.

Rob:Do you think that your teachers realized that you had this gift, because obviously you've done amazing things in music? Do you remember thinking that you have this gift?

Peter: No, I didn't. I actually had no idea that I was special and in certain ways I think I'm not really seeing myself the way others are. In fact it's embarrassing to me to see the way others see me. There was a kind of hierarchy that existed in elementary school where kids that came from wealthy families were viewed with envy.

Rob: Can you elaborate on this hierarchy?

Peter: Well it was exclusionary. People were looked down upon and it was accepted. Children who had disabilities were put into a class called sight conservation; there was no attempt at inclusion. The culture that preceded the 1960s was a very insensitive one in certain ways in the United States.

Rob: Was it in college when you made the connection to music, and then eventually led you to Paul and Mary. Where did it happen for you? Where did the music come from?

Peter: Well I had studied the violin when I was a kid and I loved this music. I never listened to Pop music. I always listened to Classical music or Folk music. And then in high school I played the guitar and sang just like everybody else. When I got to Cornell, they had a Folk Song club, which was unlike the fraternities, because it was non-exclusionary. It was de-facto exclusionary because a lot of people weren't interested in it at all. It was considered to be "geekdom." I had become the president of the Folk Song Club at Cornell and I loved that circumstance. But I was very marginalized at Cornell until something remarkable happened that really was the trigger for my choosing this direction.

I was offered an undergraduate instructorship in a class that was Folklore and Folk Ballads taught by a renowned professor, Dr. Harold Thompson. I got all the kids that wanted to raise their averages. I noted that something happened that was absolutely remarkable. These kids who were so insufferable to me, when they were singing you could sense it in their voices -- there was a joy and a love and a sense of community in the air that was intoxicating. And I realized that although on the outside they were wearing this mask of who they presumably were, inside there was much more. Inside they yearned for honest exchange, they yearned for the kind of passion that can be shared when you sing together, particularly Folk Songs that have a historic authenticity.

Rob: You've played a great role in America and its cultural growth and music, and had such a defined place in the civil rights movement. You saw that music could change people. But today it seems different. It doesn't seem like music has this effect.

Peter: Well the reason is that this kind of music is no longer on the charts, it's no longer popular. The past couple decades to the music industry became dominated by commercial considerations only. They were not run by people who loved music, but by people who were responsible to the stock owners to maximize the profits. When you take a creative arena and you subject it to that kind of critique, you end up at best with mediocrity. A lot of it is nihilistic and a lot of it is titillating because of its reference in cruel and ugly ways to sexuality and it feels to the basest kinds of impulses in our parts.

Rob:Why? OK, this music existed when you were around too. There wasn't just your music that's changing the world, you know, there's always been Pop music...

Peter: Peter, Paul and Mary had the dominant place on the charts for about two years when Folk music really was the dominant music. It became the avenue for people's growth in awareness -- an awareness of their place in society as participants. It was part and parcel of JFK's instruction, "See what you can do for your country not what your country can do for you," which was necessary for the civil rights movement and then the anti-war movement. It eventually became clear what was more profitable was the same kind of taste that produces reality shows on television that take fun in humiliating people.

Rob: You were in the middle of some great changes, in a positive way, but there was a lot hardship to get there. So why has this kind of music come to dominate? Is it because it's cheaper to make? Is it because the American psyche wants it and why?

Peter: The American psyche, like the Chinese psyche now, is all about "me," all about money, all about greed, all about money, power, fame. This shift in American culture started in 1968 when the rise of the new consciousness finally found a champion, in fact two champions, either of which could have been the president of the United States. One of them was Eugene McCarthy and he ran in the primaries, and after he had declared, Robert Kennedy declared. Robert Kennedy was shot on the night that he won the nomination and Eugene McCarthy, who should've been handed the nomination, was excluded from the Democratic Convention. This led to the riot in Grant Park and Lincoln Park, Chicago. The American public that was in the Democratic Party turned away from supporting Hubert Humphrey's candidacy, which was the greatest mistake, and in came Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon as president also did not end the war and we knew that the war was not possible to win. Another million and half people died at Vietnam. President Nixon, although I'm not sure, thought he did not want to be the first president to preside over the United States losing a war.

Rob: Martin Luther King was also killed in '68.

Peter: Let me tell you what was important that created this circumstance that now has changed America in such a way that we have to work like crazy to try and regain our humanity, as far as I'm concerned. At that point Richard Nixon stifled the energies of the voices of those who were moving in the direction that I had been singing about and playing about and demonstrating. Fear became the mode that, to a large degree, eradicated the sense that we could move forward.

Rob:That seems to have impacted what politics have become today, which are these fear-based campaigns, consisting of very little actual content, being fired across party lines.

Peter : At that point, the United States continued in a war that was based on a lie. By 1975, when it was over, we were divided into two groups. The division in our country has lasted to this day and is the basis for the polarized nation that we are today. Half of the people in this country said if you oppose the policies of this country and if you oppose this war, you are a disloyal American. A great country, like a great person, looks at their mistakes, takes responsibility for them, apologizes and makes amends. We as a country have not done this, ever, for Vietnam. We have not done this in Iraq, even though we went in there on the presumption that there were weapons of mass destruction. Where is the dialogue in this country about us torturing people in Guantanamo?

Rob: You know, I was born in '68 and grew up with all of this imagery, and a sense that America was very fragile back then. It's almost so fragile because people were protesting, there was division, and this experiment of what we call democracy seemed like it could collapse.

Peter: On the contrary, the feeling on our side was if we do not straighten out and take responsibility for our actions we will collapse as a moral nation.

Rob:When you were involved with the Civil Rights movement, was there a time when you felt personally unsafe? I'm curious, especially since I just saw a film that you were in, and you were singing after the three people were killed, the freedom fight...

Peter: Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.

Rob: And you were giving a concert and singing at the protest. I wondered if you felt in danger, because there was an actual fear that people are going to get killed down there if they go do this.

Peter: Well our lives were threatened, you know we went to a march in Frankfort, Ky., as part of the Civil Rights movement where we got the direct message, if you go to this march you will be killed. And even though Mary was pregnant with her second daughter at the time, we didn't even give it a second thought.

Rob:Why? I don't understand...

Peter: Although you might be a coward personally, if some bully walks up to you and sticks his fists in your face, when it comes to political action, for some reason, you acquire an oddity that makes you quite brave. I did a lot of organizing for the Peace Movement to stop the war and I co-organized a march for half a million people in 1969 with Cora Weiss. I was also organizing performers, bringing them into the Peace Movement, the Anti-war Movement, the movement that was viewed as seditious by those people who supported the war and thought that I was unpatriotic and potentially seditious too. I put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to organize the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Denver, the cast of Hair, Paul Simon.

Rob:It seems that you've taken on this role of protecting and representing; I'm trying to think of the word, not underdog. People who are...

Peter: Who are treated unjustly!

Rob:Unjustly. Yes, that's a better way of putting it. And now, today with your non-profit, Operation Respect, you're doing this with children.

Peter: That's right.

Rob:So I see now the course of how you got there. But tell me about the journey that brought you to address the issue of bullying kids?

Peter: Well, it started with a song, the song itself "Don't Laugh At Me", the words of which were so powerful. When I heard the song, I had already been aware that there was a breakdown in the schools of the kind of compassion and treatment that kids should be expecting but were not receiving. In fact, less than a year after I embarked on this project, the killings at Columbine High School occurred, so it was already well underway, what has now become a national epidemic of cruelty and bullying by children. We also started thinking how we had been affected by the cruelty and bullying that we had seen inflicted on others and the kind of disrespect or ridicule that was directed at us. We all had stories.

Rob: How many children have taken part in the program, and sang the song together?

Peter: Generally, portions of the curriculum are being used in 22,000 schools across America alone. If you figure that on average there are 5,000 kids per school, do the math. 22,000 times 5,000, you will see how many kids are being affected.

Rob:If you could go back and choose one thing that you have experienced in your life, is there one thing that you could just go back and change?

Peter: Personally, and willingly, I injured people. I am not a paradigm of virtue. I am feet of clay and I know it, and my job as a human being is to make amends for those things. Even in my life today, you know, I am writing letters of apology not infrequently. I just wrote one two days ago saying, "I love you and I am sorry". And I do that with regularity. If I didn't, how would I be able to be the CEO of Operation Respect? I would be hypocritical. I have to walk that walk.

Rob: And my last question, when somebody would look at you and look back at all the things that you have done in your life, how would they greet you in the next life?

Peter: "Welcome brother." I don't seek to be more than a human being. As my mother used to say, "Why are you trying to be a saint, when it is hard enough to be a human being?" Whatever happens to me, I am grateful. And if we have that perspective, we can face the greatest challenges in life.

It is like the lesson of the goat. It takes place in this tiny little community of Jews in Eastern Europe that were frequently persecuted and injured or killed. In this story, a Jew goes to the Rabbi and says, "Rabbi, help me, I honor you, you are the one to help me through this. Why this is the case I don't know, but I feel that my life is falling apart, my wife doesn't respect me, my children treat me terribly, my finances are falling apart. I don't know if I am going to lose my job." And the Rabbi says, "I will help you. Buy a goat, and bring it into your home, and live with it for two weeks. And then come and see me." And the man says, "Rabbi, I admire you and I respect you, but I barely have enough money to feed my children. How am I going to buy a goat? What you are telling me is horrible to think of." And the Rabbi said, "Do what I asked you to do, and your situation will be resolved." So the man buys a goat, and brings a goat into the house. The goat eats the clothes, it defecates on the floor, smells up everything, eats the food before the children do, jumps on top of the bed, and the house is in abject chaos. Two weeks later, with dark circles under his eyes, the man goes back to the Rabbi almost staggering and fainting and says, "Rabbi, what have you done to me? I am in total misery, I am ready to die." And the Rabbi says, "Get rid of the goat." The man goes home, gets rid of the goat and two weeks later, as the Rabbi has instructed, he comes back and he says, "Rabbi, you are the most brilliant man alive. My life is perfect and everything is wonderful. Thank you Rabbi?"

The Rabbi did not shift the situation, but gave the man the perspective to be able to look at his life in a different way. So what was impossible before became perfection. He looked at his life from the perspective of gratitude for what he had. So as we go through life complaining that we didn't get our share and feeling unworthy for reason, we need to remember the lesson of the goat. So let us know how fortunate we are, and even in the eye of great potential catastrophe, be grateful for our lives. If we can do that, I can tell you it is a great gift.

Rob: Great, thank you very much Peter for giving so much to this interview and to our country.

Peter: Thank You Brother...

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