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Peter Yarrow and musicians at Cornell Reunion 2009

Famed folk musician Peter Yarrow celebrated his 50th Cornell reunion in June 2009 by leading a group of alumni in songs and remembrances of a folklore course known in the 1950s as "Romp-n-Stomp."

Peter Yarrow at Cornell Reunion 2009

Peter Yarrow '59. See larger image

Peter Yarrow '59 -- of Peter, Paul and Mary fame -- reflects on 'Romp-n-Stomp'

Peter Yarrow '59 remembers his time as a guitar-wielding student instructor in a popular folklore class at Cornell as a watershed experience, shaping his life and career as a professional musician.

Professor Harold Thompson's American Folk Literature course, colloquially known on campus as "Romp-n-Stomp," was a highlight of late-1950s student life at Cornell, Yarrow says.

The New York City native says Cornell was "a place where I felt comfortable. They had a folk song club, and then I got a job teaching in this course! It paid $500 a year, at that time about 20 percent of what a year at Cornell cost; and I got to park my $50 car on campus."

For an hour three times a week, Thompson would lecture for 20 or 30 minutes, then a student musician would lead the class in songs related to the topics Thompson had just discussed. They sang traditional folk songs and murder ballads, Dust Bowl songs made popular by Woody Guthrie, and songs of freedom and slavery that spoke to the pressing issues of the civil rights movement.

"The reason 'Romp-n-Stomp' was so popular was no one failed this course," Yarrow says. "There was always a cadre of football players who, when awake, probably had no idea what I was talking about."

He did manage to connect with his fellow students, however, by having them sing along to bloody tales of lovelorn retribution.

"My memory of 'Romp-n-Stomp' is that one of the types of song that opened people up to something unusual was murder ballads," Yarrow says.

Within a year of leaving Cornell, Yarrow would be preparing for his debut with Mary Travers and Noel Paul Stookey, as Peter, Paul and Mary -- originally dubbed "The Ivy League Three." They were one of the most popular acts of the 1960s, giving Bob Dylan his first hits.

"If you take what I learned in 'Romp-n-Stomp' and look at Peter, Paul and Mary in the march on Washington in 1963, singing 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'If I Had a Hammer,' it was just an extrapolation from 'Romp-n-Stomp,'" Yarrow says.

Yarrow turned out to be the last student to lead the course, which ended when Thompson retired in 1959.

Thompson's course was the subject of a forum and concert with Yarrow and other "Romp-n-Stomp" alumni during the 2009 Cornell Reunion, held in June. His class's 50th was the first Reunion Yarrow had attended.

The Class of 1959 presented "Romping-n-Stomping: A Revival," drawing more than 900 people to Bailey Hall and keeping them singing along for 90 minutes. Yarrow led a circle of folk music-playing Cornellians in a program of songs -- from "Down by the Riverside" to "Blowin' in the Wind" -- and pausing to comment on their memories of Thompson and the class.

Yarrow was joined onstage by Ellen Stekert '57, another student instructor in Thompson's class from 1955-57, who also made a career as a musician; Joel Hendler '58, Harry Petchesky '59, Stan Lomax '59 (a cousin to musicologists Alan and John Lomax, a fact he said pleased Thompson), and professor of history Richard Polenberg, whose writing seminar, The Blues and American Culture, carries on some of Thompson's legacy for contemporary Cornell students.

Yarrow and Stekert played guitar, Polenberg and Hendler played banjo, and all the participants sang harmony while urging the audience to sing along with them. Hendler subverted a hippie-era put-down by leading a singalong of "Kumbaya."

Yarrow's career demands kept him from coming to a Cornell Reunion for many years. He currently works with his nonprofit organization, Operation Respect, geared to giving schoolchildren a safe, compassionate environment in which to learn.

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