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Peter and Paul, without Mary, carry on trio's tradition of 'opening people's hearts'

| Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, 7:21 p.m.
Noel Paul Stookey (left) and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary
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Noel Paul Stookey (left) and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary

There is no doubt about it, says Peter Yarrow, the spirit of Peter, Paul and Mary lives on, long after the death of Mary Travers.

When he and Noel Paul Stookey, both 78, sing together, they concentrate on a familiar Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire. “It is very specifically for us to say, ‘Yes, this tradition continues.' Mary's heart and voice is in our soul. When we sing, you can feel it. Some people even say, ‘I can hear her voice.' ''

Travers died in 2009, at 72, of complications from chemotherapy.

Yarrow says he and Stookey, who return to Pittsburgh on Sept. 17 to perform at the Benedum Center, Downtown, want to sing the songs that are most precious to people, including “Blowing in the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land Is My Land,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

“When we sing them and the audience joins us, it's very, very moving,” he says.

These days, they only do about a dozen concerts together a year.

“We have more than 50 years of togetherness, the enjoyment of just knowing each other so well, and knowing how to reach a place, a kind of sharing that continues the spirit of what Peter, Paul and Mary did, is so satisfying,” Yarrow says.

The trio was formed in 1961 during the American folk-music revival and became one of the most popular folk group of the '60s. They sang at the 1963 March on Washington and two years later, under threat of violence, at the Selma-Montgomery march. In 1969, Yarrow co-organized another March on Washington, and Peter, Paul and Mary sang in front of half a million people.

They carried on the tradition of the Weavers, whose careers were cut short by Sen. Joe McCarthy's blacklists of the 1950s, and became a link between traditional folk music and its contemporary expression.

“Our authenticity was the faithfulness with which we did it and the way we were able to understand the essence of the song and bring it into our way of singing,” Yarrow says. “That became a bridge for people to embrace this kind of music and also become interested in roots music, blues, Appalachian and other forms.”

He is quick to emphasize that they were not alone in that effort. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Ian and Sylvia, and Gordon Lightfoot all were bridges, too, “but we were part of it,” he says.

Taking that music to the stage remains special to him.

“For me, it's not adulation. For me, it is opening of people's hearts (in concert). That's the big pay off and what keeps me doing this,” he says.

Of the many social issues needing addressed on Yarrow's priority list, he is adamant that “Education is No. 1.”

He says his primary work continues to be his Operation Respect (operationrespect.org).

“I hope we understand that if we teach children in the ways of humanity and caring, rather than the cruelty, mean-spiritedness and bullying that has become the sport in our own time, that children don't buy into it, that they can help this country and, indeed, the world,” he says. “I believe it is through education that, in the long-term sense, we have the best chance to keep ourselves from the black hole that threatens everything we care about.”

Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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