Lots of people believe the folk music of the 1960s helped make the world a better place.

The songs preached social justice, equality and human decency, and in turn prompted listeners to think more about those topics.

More than 40 years later, one of the legends of American folk music is hoping the genre can have a similar effect on schoolchildren.

Peter Yarrow — of Peter, Paul, and Mary — has made it his work to bring traditional children’s songs and folk music to young people today, hoping it will help them change the climate of bullying and violence many of them often face.

Yarrow, 72, is founder of Operation Respect, a group that works to eliminate bullying and violence in schools. He has also produced nine children’s books, either illustrated lyrics of traditional children’s music or stories based on classic songs such as “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Yarrow travels the country performing children’s music and signing his books to raise money for Operation Respect and promote the group’s cause. He’ll be performing a free, one-hour family concert on Saturday at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland followed by a signing of his latest book, “The Peter Yarrow Song Book: Songs for Little Folks” (Sterling Publishing, $16.95).

Songs included in the book and the companion CD are aimed at ages 4 to 7 and include “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “The Green Grass Grew” and “Polly Wolly Doodle.”

The books will also be for sale. Yarrow will perform classic children’s songs and folk tunes, plus some songs made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary.

Yarrow recently spoke via phone from his home in New York City. 

Q: How did this show in South Portland come about?

A: I’m deeply involved with an educational initiative (Operation Respect) trying to create a more compassionate, safe, bully-free environment in schools and communities. Unlike other efforts of this sort, this one includes a lot of music — folk music, songs that speak to an authentic perspective about life and hopes and dreams. So I do these shows as part of my effort to promote Operation Respect. 

Q: So are your books part of this effort?

A: The books I’ve made have opened new opportunities for these kinds of songs to become part of the American culture. If I, as Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, were to release these songs on an album, I’d be lucky to sell 15,000 copies. I’m just not going to get it into music stores.

But the CD at the back of my book “Puff the Magic Dragon” has sold a million copies because it’s joined with a book. And every one of the songs in my books can be downloaded for free, for educational purposes.

I had resisted the idea of doing a book on “Puff” for years, until my daughter (Bethany) showed me new ways of doing the old songs could have a whole new meaning and message. 

Q: Did you change any of the songs when you recorded them for the books?

A: Many of them have kids singing in the background. When kids sing these songs, hopefully they can do the same thing in the classroom as they did during the March on Washington in 1963, when Peter, Paul and Mary sang and tried to help the effort to create a country devoid of racism. 

Q: Will you do more children’s books?

A: I’ve created my own imprint so I can do a book when I want. We have one coming out in October, “The Night Before Christmas,” where Noel (Maine resident Noel “Paul” Stookey) wrote the music to the poem. Mary (Travers) recorded the narration, and it is the last thing she recorded (she died in September 2009 at the age of 72). This book is dedicated to Mary. 

Q: Will you continue to perform Peter, Paul and Mary songs with Noel?

A: Yes, we’ll soon be doing our first concert without Mary that wasn’t a make-up show. We had some shows we did without Mary when she was too fragile to perform, but we plan on doing more shows so that the music can continue with great energy, and joy and meaning. 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]