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Guest column
The times are not a-changing

Peter Yarrow and Melanie performing at the Suffolk Theater this month. Photo: Debbie Tuma

It was a trip down memory lane at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead recently, as two folk artists from the 1960s, “Melanie” and Peter Yarrow, of “Peter, Paul and Mary,” took the stage.

First “Melanie” shared her memories of starting out in Greenwich Village coffee houses, and getting her big break at the Woodstock Festival, from which she wrote her song, “Candles in the Rain.” At 70, and following the death of her husband and producer, Peter, she was now accompanied by her guitarist son, Beau. Wearing long robes and scarves, in the hippie style of the era, she reminisced about the peace and love generation that touted her songs like, “Peace Will Come,” and “Summer of Love.”

In a similar fashion, Peter Yarrow, of “Peter, Paul and Mary,” followed, and started sharing his memories of this soulful folk group from the 60s. He talked about their world-wide travels and activism, promoting peace through their music and lyrics.

“Music is the light of the world,” he said, relating how it unifies people of all different cultures, religions and political beliefs. At 79, and as someone who has lived through wars and violence, he spoke about how his group came to fame during the Viet Nam War and the peace movement. As he spoke, huge images of his famous group, “Peter, Paul and Mary,” flashed on a screen behind him, showing them singing in their younger years. Their songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” and “If I had a Hammer,” promoted the theme of peace and love.

Suddenly, I was back there as a teenager, begging my parents to let me go to Woodstock, and caught up in the anti-violence protests and the activist movement. Here is was, 50 years later, and this folk music was still packing in the crowds; I turned around to take in this sold-out performance of Yarrow, Melanie, and warm-up singer Patricia Shui.

Then something unusual happened at this local, downtown, elegant theater, which I have had the pleasure of enjoying dozens of times before.

As Yarrow sang and strummed his guitar, screams and yelling suddenly broke out from the audience floor. All eyes turned to a table on the side in the middle of the theater, as two men were engaged in a brawl. The show stopped, and security came to the rescue, breaking up the fight and removing the people from their table.

When Yarrow finally came back on, about 20 minutes later, he spent about another 20 minutes talking about how, sadly, things haven’t changed that much in our society. Did the peace movement really work?

He looked sad, and tired. Is there no escaping violence, even at concert about peace and love? Yarrow related this incident to the troubled and uncertain times we live in today, which in some ways are not much different to those same times of his generation. And the answer he gave, was simply about people having unity.

In reference to his song, “If I had a Hammer,” he said, “If we do not hammer out a warning, and ring in danger, the love between my brothers and my sisters is the key to getting out of this mess. And one way to do this is singing.”

During his show, he called up people from the audience to join him on stage, singing some of his songs together.

“We do not need to hate each other because we have different views and perspectives,” he said. He then asked everyone in the audience to put their arms around each other and rock back and forth. At first I thought it was corny, but actually, it felt pretty healing and good when we were done.

I turned to a man next to me wearing his red Woodstock T-shirt, who said it was his 40th concert at the Suffolk Theater, and that although this was an unusual evening, “it just proves our generation made some strides, but there is still a long way to go.”

And if “music is the light of the world”, then the Suffolk Theater and all other theaters and concert halls are at least helping to brighten the future.