Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Up Close With Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary) in Concert

Tuesday night I went with my mother, daughter Tal, and her friend Josh to hear Peter Yarrow play and talk at a private concert at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv.

Who is Peter Yarrow?

Peter Yarrow is best known as the Peter in Peter, Paul, and Mary aka PPM. If you don't know their names, I pity you, but even so you probably know the music that they made famous: Puff the Magic Dragon (co-written by Peter), Blowing in the Wind, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, If I Had a Hammer, and so many more. Anyone who's ever been to camp must have sung their songs, even now that it's 50 years on from the time Peter stood up to sing.

Why Was He in Israel?

Peter was in Israel to promote a project he has been working on for ten years now called Operation Respect, an organization aimed at wiping out childhood bullying and fostering dialog and communication among children. Hundreds of thousands of children are afraid to go to schools for this reason, and suicide is the first or second highest cause of death in teenagers in the U.S., depending on where you look. And let's not forget the numerous massacres in schools in recent years.

Peter is hoping that a pilot project will begin in 4 to 6 Israeli schools in the near future, and that it will spread. He's not looking to impose solutions onto our national woes, just to provide one more possible tool.

So I expected a bit of a lecture along with the concert, and wouldn't even have been surprised to see slide show or video presentation (but we didn't get one).

Peter was supposed to be here with his daughter Bethany, a talented folk and blues performer in her own right, but she (or her son) suddenly developed a bad cold. He also told us that Mary Travers was in a wheelchair, still recovering from both a certain kind of leukemia and the chemotherapy needed to cure it. She's still singing, though.

The Concert

Peter looked pretty good. He's showing his years in his face, and his voice now wobbles a bit, but he's still charismatic, strong, determined, touching, and a joy to listen to. In an hour and a half, he performed 8 full-length songs and one verse from a ninth. He spoke passionately about his concerns for children, peace, and so on; a bit too long, actually. But there is nothing compared to hearing the original songs from the original singers.

I wondered how he was going to sing harmony without his co-singers, but, since everyone in the audience knew all the songs, he was able to sing harmony with the audience.

The Set

1. Puff the Magic Dragon

Peter cannot play a concert without playing this song, a lesson he learned at least thirty or forty years ago. In fact, he's now moved it up to the beginning of his concerts, so that if there are any wee ones in the audience, they won't miss it by the time they've fallen asleep.

Tal was already quite moved by the end of this first song.

2. Don't Laugh at Me

This is the song that inspired his new project. It's a country song about childhood bullying, and about the humanity in all of us. To tell you the truth, it's a great song, but not THAT great a song, or maybe Peter didn't quite capture it perfectly; I believe he forgot a verse. But the message is undeniable.

3. Leaving on a Jet Plane

He told an anecdote here about singing this at the Republican National Convention, or some similar Republican meeting. Given his colorful Democratic history, he was facing a crowd of crossed-arms and suspicious glances. So he gave extra oomph to the lines "There's so many times I've let you down / So many times I've played around / I tell you now, it don't mean a thing ..."

He won them over by the end of it.

4. Some Walls

Peter is a life-long Israel supporter, but it's not surprising to hear he's not happy about the security wall, in the difficulty it poses to Palestinians meeting Israelis and each other. I can agree to disagree with him on this one, and it didn't stop me from loving this song. This was Tal's favorite.

After "Some Walls", Peter invited up Shlomi Goldenberg, who played with him on all the remaining songs (using either alto or soprano saxophones).

5. 500 Miles

Played a little too slowly, with the sax a little too loud (but great sax).

6. Blowing in the Wind

Lovely. Peter cannot help but be sincere and passionate when he sings.

After the song, Tal's friend Josh had clapped so enthusiastically, that Peter singled him out by asking his age (15) and asking him to stand up as a representative of the absence of cynicism in today's youth, to audience applause.

7. Gospel and Folk Medley

A medley of: Trouble in Mind, This Little Light of Mine, Down By the Waterside, I Woke Up This Morning, This Land is Your Land, and This Little Light of Mine (reprise).


Peter related driving with an Arab taxi driver to an Israeli checkpoint and being met by a young Israeli soldier woman who looked a lot like his daughter. The woman made them open the taxi's trunk and then clutched her gun and tensed up when she saw a closed guitar case. She made them open it.

When Peter opened it, he took it out and played "Erev Shel Shoshanim" for her - while relating the story to us, he played the first verse and chorus for us, too.

He continued with the anecdote: The soldier said to him, "You play nice. Have you ever sung on stage?" Then she got a picture with him. Peter was struck by how quickly people can move from tensed for war to "Can I have a picture with you?"

8. If I Had a Hammer

It may be corny to sing this song with your friends at home, but there's nothing corny about singing it out loud with the guy who sang it 45 years ago at the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King, Jr gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.

Touching Peter

After the concert, we hung out a little until Peter came out, and I introduced him to my mom (who heard him live 50 years ago, before he was with Paul and Mary), Tal, and Josh. Peter was very warm and talked with us with his hand on my shoulder. He called Tal a sweetie-poop (I think it was a compliment).

And yes, I asked: No, Peter does not play any board or card games, claiming to be far too busy.

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