Interview With Noel Paul Stookey

By Terry Roland

Noel_Paul_StookeyIf anyone has taken the title of Dylan's classic song, Forever Young to heart, it's Noel Paul Stookey. For the last 50 years he has been best known as Paul of the popular folk trio, Peter, Paul & Mary. In a recent phone conversation, his enthusiasm, articulate and original insights and vision suggest the energy of a man half his age.

Although Peter, Paul & Mary's days of hit songs, including Puff the Magic Dragon and Leaving on a Jet Plane have long since passed, they continued as a concert draw over the last 40 years. With the untimely passing of Mary Travers in 2009, the trio, as an active touring act, came to an end. However, Stookey continues to pursue a solo career. With the recent release of his new album, the GRAMMY-worthy, One & Many, Stookey has added this new release to an already considerable legacy of music since his 1971 debut solo album, Paul And, which includes the classic that has defined Stookey's legacy, The Wedding Song. Composed in 1969, he wrote it as a wedding gift for his friend and co-member of Peter, Paul & Mary, Peter Yarrow. Before he wrote it he prayed for a song that would bring a divine presence to Yarrow's wedding. The result, as Stookey often describes it, felt as though the tune was moving through him, not from him. It is a song of celebration, reflection of what brings us together. Although Stookey's spiritual awakening to Christianity is well known, The Wedding Song, includes both Christian and Jewish allusions in honor of Yarrow's Jewish faith. Because of this history Stookey did not feel he owned the song so he put it under public domain allowing profits to go to charities. It is now a perennial at weddings all over the world.

Recently, Stookey has help to found a website devoted to songs of social change, Music2Life. The music on the site is not limited to folk music. It includes, rock, hip/hop and gospel as well. It is growing into an international site that crosses musical and political boundaries to bring to public awareness, through music, of the world in which we live. It is also interactive and as the site grows, it will provide an opportunity for the public to be involved.


With the release of One & Many, Stookey returns with an album of mostly original songs that continues the conversation he began in 1971. It is full of rich, lyric-driven tunes with music textured with his distinctive guitar work and his still-youthful, strong voice. They run the spectrum from a tale of a capricious bird to drug addicts trying to score. All of the songs have the theme running through them of the nature of love found in a world often confusing and riddled with pain. It is a hopeful reminder that the presence of love in story and song can provide healing and compassion no matter the circumstances.

TR: Tell me about the new album.

NS: It took two years to make. About one-third of the way through we started doing it live in the studio. Four or five of the songs were recorded live or in concert. It made me nervous to get out there solo. You start to feel naked and alone. But, there was a maturation to the songs that happened over time. Some of the arrangements are not real folky. America and Cue the Moon have strings. I asked Peter, Paul & Mary's orchestra arranger to do the charts.

TR: There are also songs with just you and your guitar.

NS: Yes. My style of guitar playing is different. It's always been unique. It's like a keyboard. I learned that from Peter, Paul & Mary. Peter would play the high strings and I would concentrate on the lower strings. I found a connection there in the inner voicing of the low end.

TR: Tell me about some of the songs on One & Many.

NS: Each song has a story. It's probably not a typical folky album. Like doing The Police's Every Breath You Take, was a risk. It's a beautiful song. The melody is so endearing and sweet. But it sounds like the song of a stalker, so I had to turn a blind eye to some of it. I left out the bridge. But, you can also look at it as the presence of a divine being; an all knowing, all loving being.

TR: And America the Beautiful?

NS: It's the prettiest patriotic song. It's a song the entire country can sing. But, after the first verse, I wanted to add something about the times today. I wanted to give us something about America and the times we live in.

TR: Another profound song is Jean Claude

NS: Yes. It's about an old man, years after the Holocaust, sitting in a coffee house and remembering his friend who was killed back then. But it's not about the cruelty of it. It's about how love can triumph. Maybe, externally freedom cannot. But, there's another kind of freedom spoken of in the song. You know, it's the same kind of freedom that kept Nelson Mandela alive through all of those years in prison.

TR: Did you find an organic theme come up during the two years of work on the album?

NS: If there is one, it would be that we live in a contentious time in America. It's a loud blaring age. This album is a calming and quiet reflection about love. Each tune is a prism to a center core. I've always been a believer in 'Big Love.' There is an energy in Big Love that involves service to other people that we're not capable of doing on our own. We have to rely on it to get us through moments of anger and disrespect. As long as we're connected to Big Love, we are able to love, forgive and heal. We're each enlisted to make a better world. We're called for this. Out there we want to have everything neatly organized. We love to have an organizer and join clubs with cheerleaders. We think without it we fail. Much of it appears to be anarchy. But we are all connected by Love.

TR: Isn't that the meaning of Wedding Song?

NS: You know, I never thought of that, but you're right. It speaks to Big Love. Whereever two or more are gathered Love is there. Once when I was on the Travis Smalley Show, I was talking with him about the need for love today in politics. He said something really profound; 'why can't politicians talk about love? This should be the case.' I remember feeling confirmed that someone in the public eye like him could make that kind of query. It's difficult to see when so much hostility and aggression is in the air.

TR: What is the opposite of love?

NS: It's fear not hate. Hate is a manifestation of fear. You know, The Youngbloods, had it right, "love is but a song we sing and fear's the way we die."

TR: Tell me about Music2life.

NS: It's a project I'm doing with my daughter to reacquaint us all with music for social change. It's something everyone can be involved with. You know, when we would play Las Vegas, I realized there were people who came there to hear, Puff the Magic Dragon. But, I challenge them with these newer songs. There's a lot going on in the world. The site is about reaching for a mutual ethic through music. People will come together around music like little else. The idea is not far from Woody Guthrie hearing a radio announcer, with a disdain for immigrants, talk about a plane crash that killed them and didn't give their names. Then, Woody, gives them names. It became a great song and it's still relevant today. There's a lot of ways to initiate this.

TR: How do you feel about spirituality and music or creativity in general?

NS: Pretty much if we're talking about love, we're talking about spirituality. Creativity is an expression of that. I do like the mystery though. I love that Iris Dement song.

TR: Let the Mystery Be?

NS: Yes. With creativity in the spirituality of the song, it's the intent of the author that the listener owns the message. The writer has to leave room for the listener to identify with it. In a kind of academic way the song, The Capricious Bird, is an example. It's about the relationship between the heart and the soul to the human psyche. This has never been examined as a priority. Often the soul and the heart are used interchangeably. But, it's like that cartoon Big Mike, with that little guy eagerly jumping around him. The heart is that little guy. The heart may be sold on one thing, but, it turns on a dime. The soul has a more measured place in our lives. It's like home base. With the soul's help, we learn life-lessons and if we make mistakes and feel the pain, the heart won't go back there again.

TR: So the soul is connected to something or someone much larger who we often call God?

NS: In a way. It's Love's way. The soul understands the commonality of the human condition. It recognizes its home. That's where we get the idea of soul mates.

TR: I did a lot of study in Buddhism and came across the idea that all truth is within you. But, I found it is external too, which I believe is from the West.

NS: I went through a similar thing in the late 70s. I had been in the Jesus Movement and then I studied the Jewish Kabala. I did find external connections to the inner world. It has to be practiced to develop the muscles to connect.

TR: Doesn't music reflect both the internal and the external in practice?

NS: Yes. I live in the real world and hopefully I show that kind of divine interaction between both through music. Like the time when you pick up the guitar and hit a chord on the wrong fret. But, it sounds good. It takes a sense of commitment to pursue it. Before you know it, you have a song and no idea where it came from! But, everything leads you to this moment where you say, "Hey! I just finished this song and something divine moved through me. I was the instrument."

TR: Well, thank you for the time you've spent here. I'm looking forward to seeing you in L.A. in the near future!

NS: Thank you.

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.