Puff the Magic Dragon Meets Tikkun Olam

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Click photo to download. Caption: Peter Yarrow. Credit: Courtesy Peter Yarrow.

Better known for writing and singing “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Peter Yarrow also takes special pride in “Light One Candle,” his song played on Hanukkah and at summer camps and churches around the world.

“I’m proud this song is sung all over,” Yarrow, formerly part of the famed Peter, Paul and Mary folk trio, told JointMedia News Service. “It expresses what my sense of being Jewish is. We have come this far always believing justice will prevail. In the song I say ‘this is the burden, this is the promise, this is why we shall not fail.’ What does this mean? The burden is to act from a place of awareness of justice and act in that spirit, or we will be complicit with those who attack us.”

Tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) is the crux of Peter Yarrow’s focus these days. Or maybe it has been all along.

“My life was focused around the spirit of tikkun olam long before I knew the term,” Yarrow said.

Decades after Peter, Paul & Mary performed for the Civil Rights movement at the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Yarrow and Charlotte Frank (an executive at the America-Israel Friendship League) founded Operation Respect, a non-profit that promotes the inclusion of civility and conflict resolution in school curriculums.

Yarrow’s Jewish accolades include the Allard K. Lowenstein Award from the American Jewish Congress for “remarkable efforts in advancing the causes of human rights, peace and freedom; the Tikkun Olam Award from the Miami Jewish Federation; and the Shofar Award from the Central Synagogue in New York City “for fulfilling a lifelong commitment to tikkun olam, in accordance with the highest principles of the Jewish people.”

“As a Jew it is my responsibility to do what I can,” Yarrow said.

Then come Yarrow’s musical talents—both with Peter, Paul and Mary and as a solo performer—which are frequently directed at conveying a message of humanity and caring. As a member of the trio, Yarrow earned multiple gold and platinum albums and Grammy Awards.

After bringing Operation Respect to 22, 000 schools in the U.S., Yarrow made multiple trips to Israeli and Palestinian schools, working with Israel’s Ministry of Education. You can see him singing “Don’t Laugh At Me” on YouTube in English, Hebrew and Arabic.  

After an op-ed piece on Yarrow’s program appeared in both the Jerusalem Post and Al Quds newspapers—the first time those papers had ever published the same story—the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv got involved. 

“[Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel] James Cunningham instructed his staff at the embassy to check us out,” Yarrow said. “They said ours was a sterling program and they went forward by financing the translation into Arabic as well as Hebrew.”

Beyond the United States, “Don’t Laugh at Me” has been adopted in countries such as Hong Kong, Croatia, and South Africa.

Although Operation Respect takes up most of his time, Yarrow still performs concerts. He’ll be in Bethlehem, Penn., on February 3, 2012 at ArtsQuest’s Musikfest Café.

“Peter Yarrow is an American folk icon for his role in Peter, Paul & Mary, his songwriting and his political activism,” said Patrick Brogan, vice-president of performing arts at ArtsQuest. “His involvement with Peter, Paul and Mary and the trio’s impact on the ’60s folk scene and beyond speaks for itself. We are thrilled to have an opportunity to present this iconic artist in the intimate setting of our Musikfest Café.”

Yarrow’s songs have also made their way into book form. The latest iteration of “Puff the Magic Dragon” sold over one million copies as a pop-up book by Sterling Children’s Books. He also gives his songs away (go to www.operationrespect.org for free downloads).

Over the years, Yarrow committed his time to a number of issues, including equal rights, peace, the environment, gender equality, homelessness, hospice care, and education. Besides singing with his trio at the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, Yarrow produced and coordinated numerous events for the anti-Vietnam War movement, including festivals at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium. This effort culminated in the 1969 Celebration of Life, in which a half-million people participated. 

Yarrow is a board member of the Connecticut Hospice, the first hospice established in the U.S., where he frequently sings for patients and staff, in addition to representing the organization in the media. Also in the health care arena, he founded the “Save One Child” Fund at Beth Israel Hospital’s Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery (INN) in 1996. During the last five years, the New York-based effort has provided free medical care for, or saved the lives of, some 70 children worldwide whose families could not afford neurosurgery. 

Why, then, does “Puff the Magic Dragon” continue to stand out among Yarrow’s varied body of work? 

“People yearn to care,” he said. “And that’s what Puff is all about.”

Correction: A previous version of this article cited Peter Yarrow as having written "Blowin' in the Wind" and "If I Had a Hammer. This is incorrect. Although both songs were covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, "Blowin' in the Wind" was actually written by Bob Dylan, and "If I Had a Hammer" was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. The sentence was removed. 

Posted on December 12, 2011 and filed under Arts, U.S..