Folk music teaches empathy and respect

A packed stage at Fir with Anne Halls and Christopher and Peter Yarrow.

FIR — It’s an adventure that took guts and a lot of heart. That’s how Peter Yarrow describes Rio Grande Scenic Railroad’s concert series at Fir during the summer.

Yarrow and Anne Hills performed over the weekend at Fir and sat down with the Courier while riding the train back from the venue. During the concert, the audience was holding hands, swaying to folk music while being taught that no matter what a person’s politics, everyone can still respect each other.

Yarrow, one-third of the folk music trio of Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, has performed at Fir three times and says the spirit that created the events is “very present. It’s not a commercial adventure in the ordinary sense. It’s a real passion that love and appreciation. It’s something that you feel it that’s different,” he said. He likes performing at Fir because it’s not like Ferguson, El Paso or Dayton Ohio, “Where they are suffering so much. For a few minutes, we can insert goodness without feeling a cloud of hostility, animosity, hatred and fear that plagues society today.”

Although, Yarrow only does about 40 “gigs” per year now, mostly because he “hates singing. If I could just get up there and tell jokes, I’d be a happy guy.” Yarrow said his partner, Noel Paul Stookey, is “a real-life comedian. I’m not a comedian. I’m just silly.” 

However, he can be serious when talking about the foundation he helped found and what is going on in the world today. Operation Respect is a nonprofit “Education and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the social and emotional growth of children and youth to help them develop into compassionate, respectful, ethical and civically engaged adults,” according to the website. It does this through a free curriculum that is in schools in 50 countries.

Yarrow explained that when a person reaches a certain age, they stop asking, ‘what about me?’ and instead start becoming more hopeful and not taking “the moment too serious unless it is serious.”

Hills agreed with Yarrow that the current climate in the world is serious.

“For me [it is crunch time]. I’m a clinical social worker as well as being a singer. There is social work and advocacy work with music that Peter has done from the very beginning of his career.” She said that is one reason she loves singing folk music is because it tells stories that people don’t hear anymore. It also helps people connect.

Being a performer has allowed Yarrow to become a teacher. “I feel that there is something that I have been given from Pete Seeger, from the music, and I feel like kids are sharing some [of those] ideas when you see them coming alive [at a concert]” As happened at Fir. At first, Yarrow started with him and his son, Christopher playing a “home-made Stradivarius” made from a string, broom handle and washbasin. Then Peter called Hills up on stage followed by youngsters. By the end of the concert, more people on stage than in the audience and everyone singing as one.

Hills said that “People singing to together is like people playing together. When you sing side-by-side with someone else, it’s as if you’ve shared a vulnerable part of yourself. And you’re more likely to have empathy. … When you sing with others, you gain empathy and that is what we need more than anything right now in the world.”

“Taking music out of the schools was one of the stupidest things [that could happen],” Yarrow stated. “Its deprived kids from the comfort of being vulnerable and empathic. When you sing, it’s an art form, and it becomes part of you.”

Turning to current events, both Yarrow and Hills said the deportations of immigrants is to “Sow hate and create so much chaos that we can’t keep track of our own feelings.” Hills warned, “that we have to be careful not to become desensitized by the amount to tragedies [in the country. …If a radio show kept you from saying ‘thank you’ or smiling at the next person [you meet], then you have done a disservice to that person.”

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