Peter Yarrow on the Importance of Folk Festivals

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Saying that Peter Yarrow was influential in folk music would be a profound understatement. Yarrow, due at this weekend's Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, might be one of the most important figures in the genre, and his impact can be felt across music of all kinds. A founding member of Peter, Paul and Mary, Yarrow helped pen some of the most popular songs of all time, while also helping to launch the careers of music icons like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver. He's still a familiar face on the folk-festival circuit; we asked him  him about his early memories of the events and why he continues to participate today. 

Andy Thomas: Tell me about your early memories of folk festivals. 

Peter Yarrow: When I was first out of college, I went to the first Newport Folk Festival in 1960. This was not the nonprofit folk festival that was later formed, of which I was a founding member of the board of directors. This one was a regular festival that was very, very early, and prior to what is characterized as the folk renaissance.

Albert Grossman was my manager at the time and asked if I would come and play the festival. I was really unknown, but I sang some songs that had some particular resonance, one of which was called “Scarborough Fair,” a song I had learned while I was teaching a course my senior year at Cornell University called "Romp-n-Stomp." That’s the real reason I entered the folk field, because in that class I saw the transformational power folk music had. It was a very, very backward time in our country, and certainly on the ivy league campuses.

When the kids at the college took this course, their humanity emerged, and it was palatable and clear. I was in tune with the fact that the world was going to go through a big change and that folk music was going to become an important part of it. It became the soundtrack of that change.

Going back to the Newport Folk Fest, I sang  “Scarborough Fair,” which was later renamed by Simon and Garfunkel to “Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme,” and it became a big hit.

When I became I member of the board of directors and founded [the next iteration of] Newport, I took the idea that I had developed for new singer-songwriters and brought it to the creation of a new festival in Kerrville, Texas, called the Kerrville Folk Festival. That particular part of the festival was a competition for new singer-songwriters, and since 1972, it has been one of the most important platforms for the emergence of new songwriting talent. So you might say that my background in festivals is very much part of my life.

I’ve always been very committed to nurturing new singer-songwriters. If you look at Peter, Paul and Mary’s history and career, the songs that we would sing were of unknown songwriters, which was not the case of most artists at that time, who would look for hit songwriters and do those songs so they could get themselves hits; we were unconcerned with that. We wanted to find songs that were moving to us and wonderful to us. We would find an unknown song, like “Blowing in the Wind,” and record it, and that became the vehicle by which the public would learn about artists like Bob Dylan.

What’s important about these festivals is that I want to encourage the new young singers. I’ve done that all my life and continue to want to do so.

I feel that songs that reflect the conscious and challenges of our times are needed. They’re not at the top of the charts as they once were, but they’re still important. I feel that the loss of this kind of music, as far as being a daily staple in people’s lives, is a huge loss to us and our country. It’s a vehicle in which people recognize each other. It can unite hearts and make the world a less dangerous place.

My participation at festivals these days is to do workshops and encourage new songwriters, to make them realize their music can have a profound effect.

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