Noel Paul Stookey On History, Happenstance and the Pursuit of Just Causes

The American folk icon continues to stay true to his humanitarian roots on poignant new album

Noel Paul Stookey (Art: Ron Hart)

A prolific force behind the early ‘60s folk revival and a champion of civil rights during the decades that came after, Noel Paul Stookey has always served on the front lines when it comes to advocacy and education.

As a member of the seminal folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, he helped bring those populist precepts into the modern era in the midst of a tidal wave of social change that swept across America and the world throughout that iconic era. The group also played a critical role as part of the transition to modern music, sharing the songs of Bob Dylan, John Denver and Pete Seeger with audiences that were, up until that point, often unaware.

 

 

Following the death of Mary Travers in 2009, Stookey doubled down on a solo career he intimated in 1971 with his Paul And album, and he’s been at it ever since. His latest album, the aptly titled Just Causes, consists of a collection of his songs that span the past 50 years, and, as the title implies, continues to share his commitment to concerns he’s focused on since early on. True to his humanitarian heritage, he ties each of the album’s offerings to a corresponding charity while also ensuring that all the profits from the sales of the album are given to each of the organizations involved. It’s a tact he initiated early on when he decided to donate all the royalties from his classic composition “Wedding Song (There Is Love)” to the Public Domain Foundation, which, in turn, continues to funnel funds to various charitable institutions. 

Still, Just Causes marks his most expansive outreach yet, given that each of the 15 songs in the set — mostly studio recordings, but some live tracks as well  — address different concerns, from nuclear proliferation and environmental issues to reproductive rights, immigration reform, and the need to address protection for America’s indigenous people.

“As I look back at these tunes, I realize that they’re as much a reflection of our diversity as they are a reflection of the continual need for these issues to be addressed,” Stookey says. “I  was a Johnny-come-lately to the folk scene early on. I wasn’t brought up like Peter and Mary were, in that idiom. I was a rhythm and blues guitar player in Michigan with my own band throughout much of the ‘50s. When I finally got to Greenwich Village, that’s when I discovered that music and started learning it from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Josh White. The goal was to share something more than simply romantic overtones.” 

Noel Paul Stookey Just Causes, CD Baby 2021

Stookey calls himself a “cathartic” writer, one who finds a need to address issues that provide opportunity for him to share his own personal perspective. Nevertheless, as the songs on the new album attest, he’s never lost sight of the need to back those messages with melodies that can lure a listener at the same time. 

“I do feel that there’s a balance between a song being inviting and a song having a message,” Stookey suggests. “I’m not trying to manipulate people. I realize that there’s a balance between a song that’s attractive, and a song that has a message at the same time. I realized a long time ago that you should only use chords that enhance or help to underline the message of the song. I think you can have an idea of what the melody is the moment you sit down with that guitar, but then the guitar may say, ‘You don’t really want to play it that way.’ So you make adjustments because you want the best marriage between all those elements.”

As Stookey readily concedes, the themes of these songs have been continually addressed for the better part of the past sixty years, making it unfortunate that the problems still persist. He also admits that when Peter, Paul and Mary sang their activist anthems, they had no idea that there would be a need to revisit those topics so frequently in the future. 

“I’ve pretty much discovered that in the dialogues that I’ve had with reporters and interviewers that we’re at a point in our nation’s history where personal recognizance is the last bastion of hope for the human race,” he muses. “We all hope that elected political officials can represent the will of the people, but unless we take care of our own hearts, our own neighborhoods, our own sense of respect and companionship, and offer them to our neighbor, we’re gonna be in trouble. We’re hiding behind the door and expecting somebody else to do it all for us. In one of the songs, ‘Revolution,’ my favorite part is where I’m saying that we’re a raggle-taggle army that’s got no uniform and no guns. We’re totally disorganized. But it won’t make a damn bit of difference as long as we all have the same heart and recognize that all of us share that potential.”

Still, given that he’s been a constant crusader for such as long time, he finds himself admitting  that he’s disappointed more progress hasn’t been made. “I’d much rather be writing love songs all the time,” he allows. “And yet they all these songs have this kind of hopeful quality to them. I’m just so thankful to have taken it all on in my life. We’re all connected in our hearts, and that affects my songwriting. There’s a commonality despite all our faults, our failures and our flaws.”

At this point in his career, Stookey remains part of an old guard, a group of venerable singer/songwriters like Dylan, Toms Paxton and Rush, Joan Baez and a few select others who continue to make music with a reverence and respect often missing in the current cultural climate. Nevertheless he doesn’t see any need to be placed on a pedestal.

 

VIDEO: Peter, Paul and Mary performing at the 1963 March on Washington DC

“We’re on a path that we embraced early in our lives,” Stookey says. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the joy, and I think you described it well when you said, we feel like we have a perspective to offer. It happens to be in our nature. We’re just very fortunate to be able to do what we’re doing. Where it comes into conflict is in the nature of the delivery system and the changes we’re confronted with. I guess we can do gigs, but we can’t do CDs anymore, because we’re told that nobody buys them. Still, being an entertainer-slash-spokesperson is an intriguing way of life. Ever since I was a kid, I felt like I could see some things in ways that people found informative and entertaining.”

That of course proved to be true. Peter, Paul and Mary were often present when history was being made, whether it was during the March on Washington, playing the folk haunts of Greenwich Village, or famously campaigning for Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern during the presidential election years of 1968 and ’72, respectively. 

“You’re asking a comet to be conscious of itself,” Stookey responds when asked if the group grasped the significance of all they were participating in at the time. “We were the tail end of a comet that had a really brilliant appearance here on earth, but now, the comet is fading. However, I’m still contributing a little bit of light. I have plans for another album this year, and there are three or four new songs that I’m still writing. I’m still in the process, so it’s hard for me to step back a bit. The only thing I ever recall from our career, where we looked at who we were and actually commented on it, came with something Mary said during the March on Washington. She turned to Peter and said, ‘We are watching history.’ She had a clear sense of what one’s actions could possibly produce.”

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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