The Many Sides of Paul Stookey.
Interview by Bill Bruzy
He goes by Noel but most of us know him as Paul in the long-lived folk group “Peter, Paul and Mary.” His work has become part of the rich tradition of folk music and along with the trio he helped define an era of American history. Beginning in the early 1960’s just after the repression of McCarthy era was loosening up, and the cold war and civil rights struggles were heating up, “Peter, Paul and Mary” made their debut at “The Bitter End” in Greenwich Village. That was 1961. They have been at work, with a hiatus in the 1970’s, ever since. Their work continues with a recent PBS special, the release of a boxed set called “Carry It On,” a new album, “In These Times.”
The group’s first album was produced in 1962 helping to bring the social-political energy of folk music out of the shadows where it had to hide from the pressures of McCarthy. Over the years the group collected five Grammy’s and produced many chart-topping hits, gold albums and brought classic anthems to a global audience. Their performances of songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “I Have A Hammer” (sung at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) are part of the soundscape of our history.
I recently had a chance to talk with Noel about those times, and at least some of his many interests … comedy (he released his first comedy album “Virtual Party” on April Fools Day), politics, animation, music of course, and the world, inside and out.
Bill Bruzy “Peter, Paul and Mary” are coming to the Kerrville Folk Festival this year but it’s been a part of your life for some time.
Paul Stookey Yes, certainly not as much as Peter (Yarrow) but I’ve really enjoyed it. In the past five years Rod Kennedy, my daughter and I connected up with this “Music to Life” component of Kerrville which has been very rewarding for me. As you probably know “The Wedding Song” royalties were poured into a foundation called “The Public Domain.” My daughter took a proactive role when she became director of the foundation and we created what she called a “Music to Life” contest where songwriters are encouraged to write about the world around us.
BB Do you help people publish and produce?
PS Yes. It’s a great way for songwriters to get a demo to people like Judy Collins and Holly Near, Tom Chapin and Paxton, to get feedback from people who are in the folk music world and have seen a few songs over the years. My daughter spends time, at the conclusion, trying to place their music with an appropriate organization.
BB You all, “Peter Paul and Mary,” are back in spotlight recently. I saw the PBS special that aired, you’ve just released a boxed set with a DVD, “Carry It On” and you have a new album called “In These Times.” Some of the songs came from The Kerrville Folk Festival?
PS Two songs did, from this contest we are talking about.
BB So Kerrville’s been an inspiration?
PS When you wander Kerrville, which is what I love to do, you just pick up so many pieces of music in so many different styles. It’s the closest thing to Greenwich Village in the 60’s.
In the Village in 1961-62 the most exciting thing you could do when you got done with your set was not to have a beer but to go next door to the other coffee house and hear what somebody else was doing. The highest compliment, as Peter has said many times, was to perform the other person’s song.
BB Let’s back up a bit. You seem to have had a propensity for success. I read on your website where in 1957, in Detroit on WXYZ-TV, you won a battle of the bands contest. You’ve been really involved in doing a lot of things, even from early on. Are you driven?
PS Well I really love music. I have to honestly admit that winning the battle of the bands contest on Ed McKenzie’s show was in part about selection of material. It was at time when white musicians were beginning to discover how soulful and passionate and exciting rhythm and blues was.
But you know I can’t really say that I’m driven at all. Music has always been like a hobby. When I moved to New York I didn’t immediately go to the Village to seek my fortune. I was working for a photo-chemical company.
BB Did you go to be a photographer?
PS I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew I had a multiplicity of interests and I was just waiting for something to show up. So one of the guys at work said ‘hey let’s go down to the Village and play chess.’ That’s how I first went to the Village. Then they replaced the table I used to sit at with a stage. The owner said they were going to have music at the coffee house. So I asked what I had to do to be part of that.
I had a three-piece suit and a goatee. He looked at me like I was a stranger in a strange land and said, ‘well, come on down and audition.’
They hired me as a combination master of ceremonies, musician. That’s when I discovered that the secret I had learned in being a master of ceremonies in high school was get yourself out of the way. People just wanted to know what was going on. I think that had an overall effect on my attitude as to how to interact with an audience.
Most of the people who came into the Village were artists and really most of them had talent that far exceeded mine, as was shown later in their careers. But the one thing they couldn’t do was to talk to an audience. They could perform and create and that was their expression but I somehow had the gift of being able to do a little bit of that and a little bit of making the audience aware of who the performer was, where they were from, why they wrote what they wrote. It helped make an audience feel like they were part of a community.
BB Okay, so maybe not driven, but you did avail yourself of opportunities when they showed up. Then you started singing more?
PS Basically I think Albert Grossman, the guy who put the trio together, thought I was going to be a comic. When they found out I could actually sing and they weren’t going to have to cover for me. It was a real boost.
If you talk to Peter, the big surprise is that I had a voice. I’ll tell you I’m almost as surprised as he. He knew that I could sing but that I had a voice that was as mellifluous as it was, I don’t know if that was from my radio experience in high school or that I’m a big gangly guy with a lot of breath.
BB Still, you’ve done pretty well. It’s amazing to hear you say that after listening to you sing all these years, that you would have doubted, or considered yourself marginal, I didn’t know that (laughing).
PS (laughing) I wasn’t really sure that was going to be my career for the first two or three years. I was looking kind of forward to going back to college.
BB But being a comic has always been in you too?
PS Yes. I never thought that I would be a standup comic but people refer to me as a standup comic because I used to do routines in the Village just to fill in time, along with singing and emceeing.
Over the course of the past twenty years, Peter and Mary and I have done what you would call a logging tape. Those kinds of tapes run at very slow speeds and you can’t really salvage the music. But you can certainly reclaim the spoken word. So for the past twenty years I’ve sorted through these comedy tapes and I now have an album called “Virtual Party” released April 1st.
BB The group has been a political/philosophical/humanitarian influence in the world. Do these predilections of yours for both comedy and social justice have a common root?
PS I haven’t really thought about it because to a large extent they appear to diverge. One takes life seriously, sometimes too seriously. And the other takes life lightly, sometimes too lightly.
I just read this great book called “Seriously Funny.” It looks at comics like Mort Saul, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart and explores and examines the motivation for humor in the humorous themselves. In many cases the source of the humor is accidental, or a really bad family, a frustration at life around them. To a large extent it’s cathartic. But even in the process of it being cathartic they – or we, if I can include myself, humbly, in that group of really great comics - they are trying to work out a way to live their lives. They are exploring the meaning of life.
People don’t generally go to church to explore the meaning of life. Though you would think in a perfect world that’s where they would be. But all of our lives are really spent trying to figure out what life is really all about. And here are these comics taking chances on stage. Doing very edgy kind of stuff, everything from very sexy material to politically challenging material.
So to get back to your point, yes, I do think there is a connection between the profound concerns of politics and the exploration of the comedic.
BB You had a transformational, a conversion experience, many years ago. Are you willing to talk about that?
PS Oh yes. The search began in earnest in 1967 or 68 when the hypocrisy of my own reaction to fame was evident to me.
BB A powerful statement.
PS Unfortunately, a sobering realization when you realize that you are acting differently than your inner person. Fame has a spurious component. It can be viewed as getting credit for that which you did not do because if you are in the right place at the right time then you are the guy who saw the meteor hit the building. It’s nothing you did.
At first the search was expressed in music and in my comedy. The search is also kind of a prayer. Ultimately it was answered.
So backstage came this kid who had had a personal experience with God and was moved to share it with me. You could call him an evangelist but he wasn’t really a professional preacher. You could call him a radical and I suppose to a large extent people who operate on callings or intuition a lot are taking the chance of being called radical.
I was the litmus and he was the acid. I just came alive listening to him talk about how his life had been changed by attempting to bring this same earnestness of search to a God. We did the traditionally goyum thing. I prayed, I cried. It was a genuine holy experience. My life changed radically as a result of it.
If you’ve got a life that you think has been misleading or you feel that you have been deceptive, or feel bad about things you’ve done, there is actually no one, when you are an adult, who can forgive you. Honestly.
You have to find, as so many philosophers have said, the ability to forgive yourself. Well, guess what. It doesn’t really quite work like that. You can perhaps understand how you did something and, at least it seems to me, that’s the closest you can come to it.
But to receive some kind of awareness that there is a creator who loves you and in that gasping appreciative moment you recognize that of course you are forgiven. You hadn’t a clue. You were just a little kid flailing about trying to feel comfortable. And now all of a sudden you understand there is a larger purpose. You’re still not going to know what it is, but at least you are going to know where it comes from.
And that connection in 1969 was totally life changing for me. But then I’m dealing with two people who have their own sensitivities - Peter and Mary - their own path, and I’m struggling to find a language that can express what I just went through.
It was a little childish. I found that I could use the Christian vocabulary easier than I could use any other vocabulary. To a large extent that was very off-putting, as it is for many people who are evangelized by the Christians. By virtue of Peter and Mary, and my wife for that matter, not understanding I then began to search for a language that would express it in new ways so I could talk about the experience without having to use labels that were disregardable.
In the context of doing that everything in my music changed. If you look at the “Wedding Song” that’s really an attempt to express the Divine without using labels.
BB It’s a big jump to shift to politics after that but … you are connected with John Kerry?
PS I have been for a long time. I first met John on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when we were doing an anti-Viet Nam rally. He was wearing jeans and a checked shirt. We’ve stayed in touch, been in support. When you can find somebody in politics that’s conversationally available you count it as a real blessing. Most times when we see politicians on TV they speak in platitudes and the more people they have to address the less intimate is the conversation. Just to be able to know that John has an intimate side, an accessible side, does a lot to raise his stock in my mind.
BB I was watching the PBS special and saw the clip of the trio singing at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The whole emotion of the time flooded back while I watched that. I thought of all we’ve been through and the beauty and the hope and the difficulty of that time. What was that like, being there?
PS You just said it, the beauty and the hopefulness. It wasn’t that Jack Kennedy painted the picture perfectly nor that he was the perfect artist. But you could tell from his description what the future held for us. That it was very similar to the hope that many of us had in our hearts for the equity of all humankind. Sure, you had to deal with the Red Bear, the Red Menace. There was Cuba and Russian and potentially China. But we all felt we were being kept abreast of the steps being taken towards making a peaceful world.
I think that shifted dramatically with the three assassinations. Where was the spokesperson then, with the flicker, the spark that would reignite the dream? It just didn’t happen and I’m not sure that it has yet. I’m somewhat optimistic about John. His is a difficult task because he has to explain to a public reluctant to change leadership , he has to explain to them the subtlety of the course of action that we have taken. Subtle explanations are a difficult thing to do when you are trying to run against a cowboy who says, ‘well shucks, just throw it up on the fence and we’ll just shoot it.’
Peter, Paul and Mary’s website is www.peterpaulandmary.com where you can find upcoming concert dates. For Noel Paul Stookey his website is www.noelpaulstookey.com
Bill Bruzy is a writer/photographer in Austin, Texas and can be reached at 512.477.9595