For Peter Yarrow, one-third of Peter, Paul and Mary, the past year has been full of upheaval and importance for the legendary folk ensemble.
“This has been the most remarkable year,” Yarrow says in a phone interview from Manhattan. “It has been a very important year.” Important, he says, because the group has, for now, survived a huge scare and has been somewhat reborn as a touring ensemble.
The upheaval, painful to anyone who knows the words to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by heart, stems from the health of the beloved Mary Travers, who has been suffering from acute myelogenous leukemia since 2004. She underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, and at the end of last year — December 9, 2005 — Peter, Paul and Mary came back into the public spotlight with a packed concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a huge event, not just for music fans and fans of the trio, but for Peter, Paul, and Mary themselves.
“It was very important, because that was the date that Mary had set for herself, the date she said she wanted to be (well enough to perform). When we got up on stage at Carnegie Hall, it was the first time (since the diagnosis) that everyone had seen Mary,” Yarrow says. “She looked fabulous. You could just feel the surge of caring and jubilation.”
And then the trio began singing.
“(The audience) just exploded with joy and affirmation,” he says. “The entire ordeal of Mary’s illness has just been a sow’s ear to a silk purse experience.”
Yarrow, Travers and Noel “Paul” Stookey will launch their tour at the State Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, April 28. It will be one of seven concerts the group will play through the end of the summer.
Leukemia has certainly changed Mary Travers’ life. Now 70, the soprano with the strong, sweet voice who was known for her long, blonde hair, lost that hair and is only now growing it back. She also lost more than 60 pounds through her ordeal. As of now, she has not shown any signs of the cancer’s recurrence, and Yarrow says that she is continuing to gain strength and health as her immune system recovers from the cancer and the draining medical procedures that were required to fight it.
“This past year, we had to live with the knowledge that we might have lost Mary. It was just so inspiring to see how she fought the good fight,” Yarrow says. “She became this incredibly dedicated, courageous person.”
From the time Travers’ leukemia was disclosed, Yarrow says, the group received more than 10,000 E-mails from fans and well-wishers. “It showed us just how much people cared for her and loved her. It gave her a sense of her own importance in their lives, because none of us really knows how we have affected people in our lives. The time you find out how people truly feel is when the chips are down.”
The E-mails, which were compiled in a 400-page book by the group’s webmaster, Yarrow says, “were extraordinarly moving. If someone says `You don’t know me, but you have affected my life, I wish you courage and strength, and we need you and Peter and Paul,’ well, that is just extraordinary.”
The trio has made a couple of relatively minor concessions to Travers’ new fragility, however. They will not travel beyond reasonable driving distance of New York, where all three are based. They had been performing about 25 shows a year before Mary’s illness; that number has diminished somewhat, says Yarrow. Also, the group has in the past come out after shows to meet fans, and they have often allowed select friends to meet them backstage as well. The backstage visits have been curtailed, and Peter and Paul will come out and visit, but not Mary. Not yet, until her immune system recovers some more.
As Yarrow pointed out, Peter, Paul and Mary have now been together for 45 years, and if he had it his way — if he had a hammer — they’ll be together for another 45. At least.
Peter, Paul and Mary, who have won five Grammy Awards, are one of the most important folk ensembles in the history of American music. They were one of the first groups to integrate social commentary and, later, activism, into their repertoire.
With hits such as “Puff (the Magic Dragon),” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “If I Had A Hammer,” as well as a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all of which garnered them unprecedented pop success for a folk group, the group became known as the face of the folk genre, as well as one of many artistic spokespersons for 1960s political progressives.
The group also served as sounding board and musical university for many young (at that time) songwriters such as Laura Nyro, John Denver, and Gordon Lightfoot.
The group was present at the 1963 March on Washington and other civil-rights demonstrations, and it was prominently involved in political campaigns for Democratic candidates for President and other public offices.
Even after their star dimmed somewhat as the ’70s rolled on, Peter, Paul, and Mary continued to lend their cultural capital to environmental campaigns and other liberal issues. Yarrow, 67, who received a bachelors degree in psychology from Cornell University in 1959, first became interested in folk music in the 1950s, after hearing a concert of the Weavers, the seminally important group whose format and successes turned out to be a launch pad and perpetual reference point for Yarrow and his peers.
He continues to be involved in social causes. He was involved, somewhat peripherally, with the John Kerry presidential campaign two years ago.
But his biggest project, outside of his plans to help produce a new Peter, Paul and Mary record with arrangements by longtime musical director Bob DeCormier, as well as a possible television special, is Operation Respect.
“Operation Respect is an educational program that addresses the roots of many problems in our society, such as racism, neglect, and the inequalities between men and women,” Yarrow says. “All of these things come from the bottom of this pyramid of hate we have.”
Yarrow is very proud of the group’s accomplishments over the years, and he is proud of its longevity. “We are the only group that has stayed together this long with its original members, playing its original repertoire,” he says.
It hasn’t been easy. “Being in a group like this is like being in a marriage — don’t kid yourself. You have to have a lot of humility, you have to be able to forgive, understand, and compromise. You have to be equally respectful and able to negotiate, to be open to hear different points of view. Groups break up all the time. To be able to stay together for any amount of time is a very, very demanding job.”
Peter, Paul, and Mary, Friday, April 28, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. The legendary folk trio perform the debut concert of their spring 2006 tour. They have logged 45 years together, have won five Grammys, produced five top 10 albums, and 13 Top 40 hits, of which six were gold and three were platinum. $35 to $75. 877-782-8311.