Social justice veteran and folk singer Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary) begins his hour long workshop about protest songs under the Big Sunrise Dome at ARISE Music Fest by asking everyone to cluster together. It’s an action that illustrates the power of community. In one instance, upon lessening the space between groups and individuals, everyone’s attention becomes more focused, not only onto the workshop that Yarrow leads, but onto one another.
Yarrow explains that it’s crucial to cluster together for these reasons. “We aren’t able to hear one another,” he says, pointing to the distance between clusters of friends and people sitting by themselves, “You won’t be able to hear me.”
He then asks the workshop participants in the room on how close everybody feels after clustering together. From the proximity alone, participants, who had started at a four on a scale from 1-10, were shouting out eights, nines, tens and elevens.
After Yarrow brings the group closer together, he then picks up his guitar to start with a simple folk song. It isn’t a tune that one would initially associate with a song of protest. The melody is simple and familiar and the lyrics express the kind of heartache and yearning that comes from unrequited love. But after the song’s first verses, Yarrow introduces some new lyrics, interchanging them for movements, both historical and current, in another seamless illustration of the power of bringing people together for a common cause.
He teaches the group the lyrics to the song and then everyone is singing together. There are a few songs Yarrow leads like this, interweaving stories from his experience as an artist working within the streams of numerous protests and social movements.
One beautiful and highly notable story Yarrow tells is about a time when a group of protesters, of which he was a part, were faced with a line of fierce and armored riot police. Someone told Yarrow that he should start singing the old song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, and so he did. What happened next was magical. Riot police were caught in the heart. Tension diminished. There were tears, and the hold on their guns softened. The riot police put their rifles down.
Through his stories and by simply exemplifying how easily people can be brought together, Yarrow shows how powerful protest songs really are. He shows that protest songs are still important. They bring people together. They can encourage and strengthen those who are on the verge of giving up. They inspire; they bring in listeners, understanding and ultimately peace.