Mid-Michigan has a strong folk music tradition. The annual Great Lakes Folk Festival held in East Lansing each August has attracted international attention, and you can hear folk music on 90.5 FM WKAR every Sunday night.
One of the genre's most famous performers will appear in Ann Arbor on Sunday. Peter Yarrow formed the folk super group Peter, Paul and Mary with fellow singers Paul Stookey and Mary Travers in 1961. Their music was part of the soundtrack of the civil rights era.
WKAR's Kevin Lavery asked Peter Yarrow about the current state of folk music.
PETER YARROW: It’s not that it’s disappeared; it’s in the hearts of Americans. It’s in the homes, the churches, the synagogues and schools. But the fact that it’s been out of the spotlight in this way has lost us something very important, because when people have this kind of music to share together, it creates community and it creates the will to work together to make a society a more just and caring place.
KEVIN LAVERY: So, it’s very much a fuel for social activism, as you’re indicating?
YARROW: Yeah…like in the (1963) March on Washington, where Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Blowing in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer.” It united people. They were watching; I mean, the great moment of course was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech; his “I Have a Dream” speech. But also, people said “look – we’re making our speech together. We’re singing ‘If I Had a Hammer,’” which was a huge hit at the time. (They said) “And we are asserting this together; this belongs to us. This moment, this movement.” It had a huge effect.
Now, the dominant force is really the dollar, and profits this quarter, rather than the pride that used to be taken by record companies in the kind of music that really reached everybody’s heart and was transformative in society.
LAVERY: Well, in the last decade or so, you’ve also been known for your non-profit work with “Operation Respect.” It’s an anti-school violence campaign that’s spread across the country. Tell me how that really grew out of your passion for social activism. How was that a natural outgrowth of all that?
YARROW: Well, you’re quite right, it was. You see, if you look at all the movements and the marches we’d been a part of over the years; and of course, we lost Mary (Travers) three years ago this past September 16. But her presence is still powerful; her voice and what she created is still a part of every song that I sing.
The sense of when we sing songs together in the “Don’t Laugh At Me” program -- and it’s in 22,000 schools – we create a curricula that was created to create a positive, caring, non-bullying environment in school. We are transforming children through social and emotional experiential learning. I know that’s a big mouthful, but it’s really the education of the heart rather than just the intellect. When we educate the hearts of children with curricula that open them up to understanding of nonviolent conflict resolution, to believing and caring about each other not because of things that they own or their wealth or their power or their fame in their families. And we start emphasizing the importance of each human being for themselves and what they are intrinsically, we have a different kind of environment in the schools which tends to completely obliterate bullying and disrespect.