Singer-songwriter Noel “Paul” Stookey

“Paul” of Peter, Paul & Mary fame and a longtime activist describes his newest solo project, “One & Many.”

Noel "Paul" Stookey has recorded over 45 albums, both as part of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary and as a solo artist. The Grammy winner established his voice by writing and performing music that addresses social change and balances his work with active involvement in such projects as the Music2Life initiative and Hugworks. Stookey grew up in the Midwest, playing electric guitar in his high school rock and roll band and hanging out at an R&B record shop listening to groups like the Drifters, and later moved to NYC, where he ultimately established his career. His most recent recorded collection is "One & Many."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Noel “Paul” Stookey back to this program. The legendary of Peter, Paul & Mary is celebrating the 50th anniversary -

Noel “Paul” Stookey: Ain’t we something? (Laughter)

Tavis: – of this iconic folk trio this year. Hard to imagine – it is for me. Is it hard for you to imagine that, or is that just me?

Stookey: I think it’s hard for you.

Tavis: Okay, hard for me.

Stookey: Yeah.

Tavis: In addition, he’s out with a new solo CD called “One and Many.” The disc focuses on something that has been at the core of his life – social awareness and social justice. I am honored, Paul, to have you back on this program.

Stookey: Babe, it is so good to be here.

Tavis: You been all right?

Stookey: I’ve been all right and I just – when I left the program about what was it, about a year ago or so? Peter and I were here talking about (unintelligible).

Tavis: Right, mm-hmm.

Stookey: I carried away with me a question that you had about why don’t politicians talk about love. This album had been long in the works. It’s got a piece of it, it’s called “One and Many,” and let me sing you just a -

Tavis: Come on, come on. Bring it on.

Stookey: (Singing and playing guitar) We live in the same house on different floors, and I got my window and you’ve got yours. Hey, we each got a door that leads to the hall, but the rooms are so cozy, and the door is so small. Come on, now, one flame, one flame, in a candle. One sky, (both singing) one sky, many stars. One sea, (both singing) one sea, many rivers. One love, and so many hearts. (Laughter) That’s one of the tunes.

Tavis: I love it.

Stookey: You picked up on that pretty good.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, you pick up, you know, that’s a Black thing. That’s like going to church. (Laughter) That’s A, B, A, B. You say it one time; I’m going to pick up on it.

Stookey: How come I never hear them say, “That’s white thing?” (Laughter)

Tavis: I think you just did. (Laughter) But no, it really ain’t a Black thing, because speaking of a Black thing, next year, the 50th anniversary, as I said, five-zero years since the March on Washington.

Stookey: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Tavis: And Peter, Paul & Mary turned it out.

Stookey: Yes, man.

Tavis: “If I Had a Hammer.”

Stookey: And “Blowing in the Wind.”

Tavis: Y’all rocked the house.

Stookey: “Blowing in the Wind” and walked with Reverend Martin Luther King. That was a sweet, sweet moment, looking out at that sea of people at the reflecting pond, and to hear that speech -

Tavis: I love this old footage, man. There it is, that footage. I love – what do you recall about that moment? I guess it’s impossible to – did you know the moment was that big when you were in it?

Stookey: I have to fall back on something that Mary said at the time. She said she had never been in a place where hope was so palpable. In retrospect, I’ve just got to think that we were part, just a small piece, of history. But life is made up, our choices that we made, are all little pieces of history.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Stookey: Folk music, and the ethic that has carried me into this album and has carried the trio for 50 years is embodied in music. Not only in folk music, but social of social change, music of social conscience. It’s like carrying your best friend around with you.

Tavis: There isn’t, to my ear, at least – maybe you see or hear this differently. To my ear, though, there isn’t as much music of social change and social justice.

Stookey: Well, a lot of – the issues are really complex now.

Tavis: Right.

Stookey: As anybody knows. They’re not so simple as civil rights, because civil rights has moved to human rights, and human rights is even wider, because now it includes the environment.

So because of the diversity of the issues there’s a diversity of music being made, but it’s still being made. The interesting thing about it is that it’s being made in all kinds of genres. It’s rock, it’s reggae, it’s rhythm and blues, it’s rap, hip-hop.

Tavis: So you still hear it various places?

Stookey: You do, but you have to go digging for it.

Tavis: Right.

Stookey: My daughter and I, actually, I don’t know if it was mentioned to you before the show, but there’s a database now called Music 2 Life -

Tavis: I know all about it.

Stookey: – that kind of hip two? You know, the “Music 2 Life.” (Makes motion) (Laughter)

Tavis: Do that again. I like the way you did that.

Stookey: (Makes motion) 2, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, I like that. (Laughter)

Stookey: Music 2 Life, which is not only an education support for musicians and singer-songwriters of music for social change, but also has a huge database and more, because it’s like a Wikipedia with people calling in and saying, “Hey,” or typing in, “Why don’t you have this song?” Then they offer the song and there’s -

Tavis: And there’s a song on this project -

Stookey: Yeah.

Tavis: – courtesy -

Stookey: Oh, that’s true. You did your homework.

Tavis: Oh, man. Come on, man.

Stookey: Man.

Tavis: You want to talk about that?

Stookey: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was just thinking about that. It’s called “The Big Picture.”

Tavis: That’s it.

Stookey: Yeah, it’s a sweet, sweet, vulnerable – (plays guitar). (Singing) Sitting in front of this beautiful sunrise – anyway, it’s a song about a man who is sitting in front of the enormity of the cosmos and just thinking in the face of all this, what are my troubles worth? I’ve got to look at the big picture. Yeah, I think it’s a call to conscience.

Tavis: The beauty and the blessing of having you here 50 years after Peter, Paul & Mary come together, 50 years after the March on Washington, the beauty of you being here is that you still do what you know, understood better than anybody I know.

You do it so well. But how do you sustain your hope? Because 50 years later, there’s still a need for this, for your voice, for this lyrical content -

Stookey: I agree.

Tavis: – to push people to talk about love and justice. So how do you navigate that every day, 50 years later?

Stookey: I hear what you’re saying, and it’s a choice you make. Are you going to remain vulnerable? Because if you remain vulnerable to the world around you, you set a great example. I think you give wisdom and I think you give confidence to those who would like to take the chance, who would like to be open to change, who would like to be open to a dialogue.

Yet our human condition, it seems like we inevitably want to have uniforms and we want to have business cards. There’s a line in – (singing and playing) But we’re a raggle-taggle army, got no uniform or guns. Still, we’ve been called by coincidence, so maybe we’re the ones to take this revolution to the street. Smile at every solitary person that we meet. We’re gonna wave at total strangers, no matter where they’re from. We’re gonna start a revolution. Yeah, we’re gonna “we” it one by one. (Laughter) You know what I’m saying?

Tavis: Yeah.

Stookey: So -

Tavis: I know what you’re saying. I can’t say it like that, but I know what you’re saying, yeah.

Stookey: (Laughter) Well, I think it’s on us, individually. We may not get credit for it, but we have to be open to it. So yeah, I’m a small voice. I don’t have the – I can’t command the audience of Lady Gaga, but I can still talk to the truth in my own life and the truth that I see in other people’s lives, and that’s basically what the students – I don’t know if they told you, or I don’t know if you got a chance to listen to it.

But I had the audacity – that’s what my wife says, anyway – (laughter) to write two new verses to “America the Beautiful.”

Tavis: You keep asking my questions.

Stookey: Oh, I’m sorry.

Tavis: You keep jumping in front of my questions.

Stookey: Where did you buy your tie? (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because that was one of the places I was going to go, and audacity – I didn’t know your wife had said that.

Stookey: Yes, sir.

Tavis: But that was one of the words I had on the tip of my tongue, because that’s a bold move. As a matter of fact, when I got the project and I popped it in, you know what my first question was? “Can you do that?” (Laughter)

Stookey: Yeah, that’s right. “Is that legal?”

Tavis: Yeah, exactly. Can you take “America the Beautiful,” can you add a couple verses? Can you do that? Obviously you did.

Stookey: Well, folk music always has appropriated the song. Woody’s “This Land is Your Land,” Woody’s “Bound for Glory,” this train. These are all songs that have been in the public dialogue for a long time.

So to take a song that’s, what, 200, 100 and how many years old, and to write new lyrics, I think especially appropriate for “America the Beautiful,” because we all love the first verse – “America, America, God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brother hood from sea to shining sea.”

Tavis: – “With brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Stookey: But the second verse is like the alabaster cities are gleaming and the pilgrims’ feet are going to trod. (Laughter) So to say, (singing and playing) Oh nation of the immigrants and of the native son, whose loyal families labor still, that we may live as one. America, America, renew thy founders’ call. Let liberty and justice be the right of one and all.

I just think it’s important that we bring it up to date, and that we remind each other. I had the funniest thing – do you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” around this time of year?

Tavis: Oh, every year, mm-hmm.

Stookey: Remember that scene, Jimmy Stewart, he canceled his honeymoon and he’s in the savings and loan, and everybody’s come bounding up the stairs and they all want their money back. Well, they don’t, but this first guy says he wants $43.67 or whatever it is.

Jimmy Stewart says, “Well, well, well.” (Laughter) “You’ve got to understand, your money’s in Mrs. Jenkins’ house, and Mrs. Jenkins’ money is in -” that’s kind of what Obama is trying to tell us. This is not socialism, this is compassion. So I find a real lesson buried in there.

Tavis: I love what you just played, but I can imagine, which obviously doesn’t frighten you, because you had the audacity to do it, (laughter) when you start putting immigrant rights in “America the Beautiful,” some folk don’t want to hear that.

Stookey: Yeah, but how did we get here, brother? We be immigrants. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yes, we be.

Stookey: Yeah. You’ve got that right. No, I really – I don’t want to bring it back to the album because I don’t want to shill the album.

Tavis: I’m going to bring it back to the album.

Stookey: I think it stands by itself.

Tavis: Go ahead, yeah, yeah.

Stookey: But there’s 15 tracks, and each of them is really kind of unique. “Capricious Bird,” which I love the concept – “The heart is a capricious bird and she wanders where she will. If the soul were not her home, she’d be wandering still.”

What I mean by that is that our hearts are really kind of free. They go everywhere. They want to try things. They’re like that cartoon with the big bulldog and the little guy, “Hey, Spike, hey, Spike, you wanna play? You wanna play?” Well, the heart is like (makes noise) it’s everywhere, checking things out, but it’s always got to come home eventually.

Then the soul says, “Well, did you have a nice time?” and the heart says, “Yeah, I had a great time (unintelligible).” “Uh-huh, and was it meaningful?” “Well, well, not exactly meaningful, but I had a great,” “Are you gonna do it again?” “Probably not.” (Laughter) “And why not?” “Because I want my life to have more meaning.”

So that dialogue that goes back and forth is done in an Appalachian style. I had a lot of fun exploring all of these avenues, and they’re all really folk-based if you think about it.

Tavis: Right. I get the sense that you do, because every time you come on here we all have a great time. I have a great time, the whole crew does. I get the sense, though, that after all these years you still love doing this.

Stookey: Yeah, but it’s odd. I don’t want to take it into a stadium. I don’t want to take it on the road. I’m not willing to give up the relationship I have with my wife and my family to make this a success. The fact that I can sit and talk to you about this is such a blessing for me, because I get to explore it with somebody who’s compassionate and understands, in a sense, what I’m reaching for.

But I’ll be 75 in two weeks, and the last 25 years of my life, assuming that I live to be 100, I’d like to spend relaxed with family. I think it’s the hidden part of the American dream. You not only would like to have a house and a car and a couple of kids, but I think you’d like your later years to be meaningful.

So I’m going to continue to write, but I don’t know how many people are going to find out about it.

Tavis: So I’m glad you went there, because it then raises the question for you – and I celebrate your answer in advance, if I think it is what it’s going to be – but where, then, does the joy, the meaning, come from? Because everybody in your business measures the success of their work by the same unit, by the same stick, which is how many copies did you sell.

Stookey: Nah -

Tavis: How many units did you move?

Stookey: No, no, no, no.

Tavis: So for you, if you readily admit to me, okay, not everybody is going to hear this, per se, but obviously, it was a joy for you to do, there’s meaning and value in your getting it out, although you’re not willing to go around the country and do 85 dates to make it happen.

Stookey: Amen to that, brother.

Tavis: So how do you measure the success of it, then?

Stookey: Folk music has an ethic that says if it’s for the community, it’s worth it. You ask anybody who ever calls themselves a folk singer, and you’re going to find that 90 percent of that which they have created or that which they sing has nothing to do with making a buck.

It’s not (unintelligible) building, it’s not writing, (singing) “The clever little ditty for everybody in the city. That’s what I love to do.” (Makes noise) They’re writing something because it needs to be spoken, needs to be addressed, needs to be shared.

This is heartfelt music, and therein lies the joy. Like I said, it’s a raggle-taggle army. We got no uniform or guns. But we’ve been called by coincidence to share this.

Tavis: So in the middle of the night, just between the two of us -

Stookey: Yeah.

Tavis: Just between the two of us – (laughter) nobody’s watching or listening to this.

Stookey: No, I don’t think so.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, it’s just the two of us. (Laughter) In 50 years of doing this, I take your point about if it’s for the community then it’s all good. But you are so gifted and you are so talented, in the middle of the night when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to pay your bills – you know where I’m going with this. You ever had that thought about whether or not I should have or could have or might have done the commercial thing and -

Stookey: I’ve been so blessed. There’s a line in a song I wrote called “In These Times,” which is on here, it says, “We’re dancing with disaster when we live beyond our needs and pretend our hungry souls have nothing to do with greed.”

I have not – ever since I was a kid, ever since I stumbled into that coffee house in Greenwich Village and said, “Why are you building a stage where I used to play chess?” and they said, “Well, we’re going to do shows here.” Ever since – I’ve been living a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney life for 70 years, and I’ve been blessed with a beautiful wife who loves me since high school.

I’ve been blessed with three beautiful daughters; I’ve got three wonderful grandsons. They all married well, too. I take that as a compliment. When your daughter marries well, you say, “Well, maybe the dad did okay.”

So I don’t think that success truly in anybody’s heart is going to be ultimately measured by how many units were sold. I think it’s going to be measured by the level of completeness that they’re going to feel in their lives when they cash out. That’s what I’m looking for.

Tavis: The death of Mary.

Stookey: Yeah. I think that’s largely responsible for the impetus to get this out.

Tavis: In what way?

Stookey: Well, the one thing that Mary gave us by her emboldened spirit was a sense of our worth, and that we were making a statement that helped other people. That it would not be right to just let it fritter away. Make the statement, let people discover it.

There is a certain humility to the presentation of these thoughts, because I don’t know, I feel strange assuming that I know the answers. But I sure have learned a lot of the questions, and to the extent that I can present them, I feel like I’m carrying on Mary’s work as well as Peter.

Peter, the fact that he’s not here, in his absence I have to defend the fact that he’s either in the Ukraine, he’s in Palestine or in Israel working on Operation Respect, which is an anti-bullying program.

This thing called folk music, as hidden as it is under the glamour and the glare of show business, has a value that people will always, always turn to and discover and hold deep in their hearts, whether it’s from 1963 and the March on Washington or whether it’s protesting a war in Vietnam or whether it’s protesting countries involved in Central America, when we did that.

This music, whether it’s expressed in folk or reggae or rock, it’s an opportunity for people to mutually articulate what they care about, and the money doesn’t matter.

Tavis: Tell me about the experience, to the extent that there was an experience or a moment, and that might be oversensationalizing it, but take me back to that place, that space, as best as you can recall, where you acknowledged that this is, in fact, your calling.

That this is, in fact, your vocation in the world. My sense is that it happened before the three of you got together. The fact that you guys got together then it all made sense, and it came together when you got together, but I have to believe that that calling was stirring inside of you, had previously been acknowledged, and then again, I could have been wrong.

Stookey: I think that’s because you’ve been spending too much time in Los Angeles.

That you feel that way. (Laughter) Quite honestly, and if you look at your own life, I think you’d have to admit coming to grips with death, with destiny, with a calling is an evolutionary thing. You don’t know where really you’re being called when you make this choice or that choice, but you accumulate these choices and you discover that you’ve built yourself a life.

Then to the extent that you could correct it or you don’t feel comfortable with it or the capricious heart returns to the soul and gets itself straightened out, you make course adjustments. So it’s not one particular moment, it’s a series of moments that are connected.

You know in the cartoons where the character runs out over the edge of the cliff and he doesn’t fall right away?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Stookey: Well, imagine that your life is a series of extending that trip further and further and further. If somebody asks you, “How come you’re suspended up there? How can you believe, with all of the stuff around you, how can you stay – how come you’re not looking down and falling?”

You’re saying, “I have built my faith on the distance that I’ve come since I first believed.”

Tavis: I did not know “Road Runner” could be so profound. (Laughter)

Stookey: Well, he looked down, didn’t he?

Tavis: Yeah. (Makes noise)

Stookey: Yeah, well, this Ajax company.

Tavis: Yeah, like – you took “Road Runner” and turned it into a deep philosophy. I didn’t see that coming.

Stookey: Yeah.

Tavis: You’ve been watching a lot of cartoons lately too.

Stookey: No, I grew up on cartoons. (Laughter) I always wanted to be an animator.

Tavis: Is that what you might have done if this -

Stookey: I thought I would, yeah, but I’m kind of colorblind. That yellow shirt and that green suit that you’re wearing -

Tavis: This green suit I got on.

Stookey: – I wouldn’t ordinarily know that if they hadn’t told me. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. I get it, but for those who don’t have a copy of it yet, why call this “One and Many?”

Stookey: Well, my wife of almost 50 years -

Tavis: You like this number 50. March on Washington, Peter, Paul & Mary, married to the same woman, yeah.

Stookey: When my wife was chaplain at Northfield Mt Herman School, it’s a prep school on the East Coast, she began a program, a dialogue, with all of the different faiths of this little school, and the subsequent program that we’ve created now, which is called One Light, Many Candles, which in post-production, there’ll be OneLightManyCandles.org across the bottom of the screen. (Laughter)

Anyway, it’s commensurate with this, because if you think about that lyric, “One light, many candles, one sky, many stars, one sea, many rivers, one love, many hearts,” what Betty and I try to do in our One Light, Many Candles is to remind people that we all have a different perspective on the divinity

We all think we have a claim to it, we’ve all, or those of us that have been touched by it, are devoted to it. This “One and Many” represents not only the various styles of music that’s on this record, but it also represents a philosophical thought that let us agree that your point of view is as valid as mine, and yet somewhere in the center we are truly connected.

Tavis: While you figure out what you’re going to play us out with -

Stookey: Oh.

Tavis: – that was your cue – I’m going to tell you that the new project (laughter) of Noel “Paul” Stookey is called (guitar playing) “One and Many.” His Peter, Paul & Mary work will live forever, but so will his solo work.

This is the latest solo project from him. Once again, it’s called “One and Many.” That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

Stookey: (Singing and playing) One flame, many candles. One sky, many stars. One sea, many rivers. One love, many hearts. (Applause)

Tavis: And there you have it.

Stookey: Thank you, baby.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 21, 2012 at 4:30 pm