Peter Yarrow's eyes have seen it. They scanned the wide column of hopeful marchers in Selma. As he stood at Martin Luther King's side, they gazed upon the 250,000 souls who witnessed King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Did the member of trailblazing folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary ever get nervous?
"Yes, I did," he told me last week. "Do you anymore?' I asked. "No. Never."
Yarrow got over the jitters long ago. Light on his feet and fast with the quip, the 71-year-old moves with the passion and gusto of Ebenezer Scrooge awakened on Christmas morning. Pathologically positive. "You're fighting a cold," I noticed as we met. "Oh, no," he corrected with a grin. "I'm kindly welcoming it."
Yarrow's size together with his balding pate and loving, close-set eyes give him the appearance of a guitar-toting Yoda. He came to our Wisconsin Public Television studios last week to create an episode of The 30 Minute Music Hour. Yarrow has been a lifelong devotee of public broadcasting.
And as anyone who watches knows, Peter, Paul and Mary music specials are fundraising staples in PBS land. Those shows don't include interview segments with the artists, like ours does. With that difference I saw an opportunity to bring our audience his music and more. He didn't ask me if I was nervous. I was. His good-natured yet relentless teasing did nothing to help me get my footing.
The UW students on our crew reacted to Yarrow with a mixture of awe and bewilderment. Most didn't know that these days he is as devoted to young people as he was to civil rights in the '60s. In 2000 he founded Operation Respect, a nonprofit that provides public schools with curriculum focused on tolerance. His work in this area, like his work always has, weaves into his music. (All of Yarrow's songs are downloadable - free - at dontlaugh.org.)
When it came time to rehearse the opening of our show, I grew worried about getting Yarrow to concentrate. He was carrying on, funny as hell, sharpened by years of performing, storytelling and travel. Yet we had to get the show on the road. The 30 Minute Music Hour is made in real time and webcast live.
Dumb me. He could have made it through our rehearsal blocking straight out of bed. He improvised and talked and joked and sang - all the while hitting every mark of our dry run. Our production day fell exactly one week after the four-hour memorial service for his late singing partner Mary Travers. Those moments were still very close to him.
Once our interview began I tried to get him to tell me how he approached singing against Travers' huge, classical voice while keeping balance with Noel Paul Stookey's jazzier vocals. Instead, a story about Peter, Paul and Mary singing for President Kennedy and guests in Washington emerged.
"Usually when we sing in the folk tradition, people sit on the floor." Yarrow's eyes shined in the glow of the memory. "One person in the back immediately sat down on the rug. It was the president. Everyone else followed."
I had brought my ukulele with me to the studio hoping we could play a song together - either on or off camera. I had a song in mind. After lunch I broached the subject and named the tune, a romantic ballad from the late 1930s.
"Nah," he said. Then he asked his assistant to bring him his guitar. "Let's try this," and he plucked the introduction to "Sloop John B" in the key of C. It worked. "We'll do it in the show," he said. "When?" I asked. "In the second set."
But he asked for it in the first set. While we were live. It took me completely by surprise. After the show he said, "I knew it would look less planned if I tricked you."
Yarrow is a wonderful and exhausting person to interview. You finish with more questions than you begin with. The one I wanted to ask the most, but didn't, was seasonal. "What are you thankful for?"
When I looked back at my notes from the day I saw an answer that came up on its own. It reveals, after all these years, how the man who worked at the center of the counterculture is humbled by the people who worked just as hard out on the edges. And it has a local touch.
"Will you please help me find Midge Miller's number?" he asked his aide. He wanted to invite the onetime state representative (who died just this past April and whom 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy called "the most effective person working for me in Wisconsin") to join him at his book signing. He turned to me with his piercing old eyes, still filled with fire and cause. "She's a very important person. I'm grateful for her work."