It Doesn’t Get More Woodstock than this…

It’s not every concert where the headlining act greets everyone at the door – strangers included – with a kiss on the cheek, but then the legacy of peace, love and understanding is still very much a part of Peter Yarrow’s persona. And this is Woodstock, after all, the arts colony where Yarrow came as an “audacious” child painter way back in the 1940s, long before Bob Dylan made the place fashionable, and equally long before Yarrow became famous as the Peter in Peter, Paul and Mary.

It’s one of those pleasant coincidences that his show at the Bearsville Theater, with (daughter) Bethany and (her accompanist) Rufus came right at the point I’ve been writing about the Greenwich Village folk scene, and “discovering” – at least for myself – the music and legacy of Peter, Paul and Mary. An act that seems, in retrospect, so… well, old-fashioned, was, in the year before the Beatles, the very biggest thing in America. During one week in November 1963, their three albums were sitting at numbers one, two and six in the American charts, and their previous two singles – “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” both top ten hits – had introduced the world to the hitherto unknown writing talents of Bob Dylan. (Bob, we tend to assume, would have made it anyway, but at that point, he certainly needed the help.) A couple of months earlier, they had performed at the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, and they maintained their firm social stance throughout their still extant career. (Check out the 1980s song “El Salvador” or the rather bluntly-titled album Songs of Conscience & Concern.)

In some ways it seems a shame then that they remain best known for a children’s song, “Puff (the Magic Dragon)” co-written by Yarrow with a Cornell university friend back in the late 1950s. (That friend, Lenny Lipton, went on to invent the 3D projector used in cinemas worldwide.) But that’s alright, too: another important part of folk music has been its relevance to the kids – by which, I mean the real kids – and this Peter, Bethany and Rufus show at the Bearsville continued that fine tradition with an early set that was filmed for a PBS special. Many local kids were let in for free – and everyone, young and old, received a signed copy of a new, beautifully-illustrated Puff The Magic Dragon book.
Puff, the Magic Dragon
The set was as typically disjointed as any TV shoot, and we were all kept waiting outside for an hour beforehand, which would have been unpleasant were the weather not nice and most of the kids already quite friendly with each other. Apart from an introductory song by Yarrow called “Magic” – which fair put the hairs on end – the set drew from the legacy of children’s folk music: “The Blue-Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn),” “Froggy Went A-Courtin’,” “Cindy Oh Cindy” and, of course, “Puff.” Should this seem just a little too juvenile, bear in mind that both Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly recorded the first two of these songs all the way back in the 1940s, and you don’t get much more street cred than those guys. And at least the arrangements varied significantly from those of the old (and dead) folk, with steel guitar, dobro, bongos and a wonderful cora; Bethany, who has a powerful voice, and Rufus, who plays cello like it’s a bass guitar, are both, it turns out, serious world music fans and happy to include the friends they’ve made along the way.

Rufus, Bethany and Peter – and kids.

It was all good, innocent fun in a hold-hands-around-the-world kind of way, and either though our own two kids fell either side of the ideal age range, they seemed to enjoy it. I was particularly pleased to see how our 12-year old Campbell was drawn in to the stories, and admired Yarrow’s genial grandpa persona that managed to control an inherently unruly set of kids. The older people in the audience enjoyed singing along as was always part of the folk custom (check any live album by the newly venerated Pete Seeger for proof) and presumably they had ample bonus opportunity during a second set that removed the children’s aspect. But I can’t be sure: the rest of us got our kids home and in bed in time for school the next day – and reminded ourselves that, even if Peter, Paul and Mary eventually fell out of fashion, the songs remain an eternal part of the American folk music catalogue.

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November 2021