Gary James' Interview With Paul Stookey of
Peter, Paul and Mary
They've been entertaining audiences for over 3 decades, earning 8 gold and 5 platinum albums in the process. Songs like "Blowin' In The Wind", "If I Had A Hammer" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" made Peter, Paul and Mary one of the most recognized names in the music world. Peter, Paul and Mary are still going strong today.
We talked with Noel Paul Stookey about the group's history.
Q - After 31 years of travelling, recording and performing, aren't you tired of it all?
A - Well, the travelling is invisible, I don't even see the travelling anymore. To me, that's like moving into this separate space, regardless of the carrier, or the time, or the location. It's almost like another office. The actual performances of course have their own glow, because everybody sitting in the front row is different than everybody that was there the night before. And, they each have different responses to different songs. And, the fact is, with the three of us singing, there is quite often a different attitude every time we do a song. I don't think you can perform for 30 years without having some portion of what you do be referred to as being nostalgic. Certainly anybody who comes to a Peter, Paul and Mary concert will say that we don't dwell on it. I think it was Tom Paxton (singer / songwriter) who said "It's OK to look at the past, you just don't want to be caught staring at it." (laughs) About a third of our show is old favourites. About a third is from the second and third decades, the more contemporary pieces that we've been performing since the late 70s. The remaining third of the show is a more challenging medium than pop, by virtue of the fact that it's not verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus, chorus. There's a musical arrangement. The lyrics are meant, more often than not, to engage and sometimes challenge. They cover such a broad spectrum of human experiences, that an audience is called upon to take an active role in listening, and because of that, it doesn't get old. It's just as challenging as meeting someone new on a street corner, engaging them in a conversation and trying to talk to them about all those things that have been on your mind.
Q - You're on the road about 60 days a year?
A - Yeah. It takes about a hundred days to do 60 days on the road. That's, you know, the half days of travelling, the rehearsal, the promotional time spent doing television shows or whatever.
Q - Does the group have a record deal as we speak? (1993)
A - We're just leaving Gold Castle, where we've been for several years. We're about to re-sign with Warner Brothers.
Q - In the early 60s, folk music seemed to be very popular. In the early 70s, people like James Taylor, John Denver, Jim Croce and Cat Stevens brought back the interest in acoustic music. Today, we don't hear anything.
A - Except for Tracy Chapman or Suzanne Vega or the occasional odd-ball tune. But, that's mostly style, that's not substance. What I mean to say is, I think folk music's impact really was more about substance than style. I think folk music gave pop music the awareness that it could speak about many different subjects. And that's why Paul Simon, Sting, Dolby, V2, Midnight Oil, are able and encouraged to sing about broader aspects of the human condition than just moon, spoon, June, which frankly, prior to folk music was about the limit of musical expression.
Q - What was the contribution of your late manager Albert Grossman to Peter, Paul and Mary?
A - It was significant. Albert had a vision for a group. He was the personal manager for Peter Yarrow and conversant with all the talent in (Greenwich) the Village. So, he put a group together which included Peter, myself and Mary. The fact that we worked, and I don't mean got jobs, but the fact that the combination clicked, I think kind of surprised Albert as much as it surprised anybody.
Q - I don't suppose there are managers out there today like Albert Grossman.
A - Oh, sure there are, but they won't have the quintessential taste that Albert had. Albert was truly a Renaissance man, not in terms of hands on, but in terms of judgement.
Q - You were in a rock 'n roll group in high school and then you worked as a stand-up comic in Greenwich Village for awhile. How serious were you about succeeding as a comic?
A - Oh, that was just part of what I did. I wasn't really too serious about any of that. It just seemed to be called upon from time to time. That's why working in the trio was a perfect avenue for me because I could be and still can be all those things. Essentially in Greenwich Village I wore two or three hats. I was a singer. I was a comic. I was also the Master of Ceremonies for most of the coffee houses I worked in.
Q - What does it do to a person to one day be struggling and the next day be in the back of a limousine, en route to meet the President of the United States?
A - It depends on how sensitive the person is, because I think part of the debilitation that success carries with it is the inability to recognize perspective. I would've had to have been terribly aware of what was happening in order to be able to get a sense of the changes that were going on in my life. As it was, I was just reacting to them. At one point, each of us, and I don't mean Peter and Mary, I mean each of us as human beings on the planet, have to ask ourselves, "What is life all about?" I really had no time to ask that question until the mid to late 60s. I think there's a period of time I went through where I actually believed all my press clippings.
Q - What was it like to perform for President Kennedy in The White House?
A - We actually didn't perform in the White House for Kennedy. By the time we got to the White House, it was for Johnson. And that was to honor Uthant, who was then the Acting Secretary for the United Nations. Prior to that, we had been invited to celebrate with the Kennedys, the Second Anniversary of his Inauguration. We had a wonderful time. That was a huge ball, with 2,700 - 3,500 guests. Then we drove through the streets of Washington in our first limo, behind a police escort, to Lyndon Johnson's house where we met the President and Vice-president, and their ladies, and the other guests who had performed at the show previously, and we did it all again. Gene Kelly tap danced with Jack Kennedy. It was a great night. It was a beautiful night. He was a very warm and generous man. He may have had other faults, but I didn't see any that night.
Q - "Puff the Magic Dragon" was interpreted by some to be a drug song. I believe it was Vice President Spiro Agnew who brought it up. How did that whole thing get started and what did you think of that interpretation?
A - It was spurious new reporting. The first time I heard of it was a Newsweek article that said "It is reported that..." which of course is impossible to defend against. Because it was untrue and an interpretive concept, you can make anything out of anything if you want to.
Q - Why did they pick on your song?
A - As I hear it, it was a joke. But, that's only hearsay on my part. I heard some reporters were sitting around saying we gotta do something on the interpretation of lyrics. Somebody brought up "Puff the Magic Dragon" and everybody cracked up and they wrote it up. The next time I heard anything about it was when Spiro Agnew made a reference to it.
Q - You have a multi-media organization. What's that all about?
A - The first part of the multi-media is the recording studio where we recorded the first 3 albums of David Mallot, who wrote "The Garden Song" and did several of my solo projects. We must've released a dozen albums out of the shop here, the shop being a converted hen house on the coast of Maine. And that was under New World Records. Simultaneously we began building and finally completed a studio, an animation studio. I would have to say the crowning achievement was the presentation to the Christian Broadcasting Network of a nine minute proposal for a children's show, which they subsequently funded it, but decided not to do it. There were a few animated projects that lingered for about a year after that. Ostensibly the animation studio folded in the early 80s. Then, one of the animators got supercharged by the idea of having a radio station here, and spent a lot of time doing licensing and site building applications. Then finally WERV, a community broadcasting station went on the air about 4 years ago and currently takes up the entire first floor. Meanwhile, I've rented out some of the space as apartments and one to a music publishing company and another to a film archival company. Personally though, I find there are three major areas that operate out of the office here in the hen house, which I've still maintained, but don't necessarily call upon. The most prominent is probably the music production company for hospitalized or terminally ill children. That was for a group called Celebration Shop in Texas. We're nearing the 100,000 mark of cassettes distributed free to children in hospitals. Also for Celebration Shop was a project for adult children and children of dysfunctional families, which is slower to be distributed by virtue of the fact that it's more difficult to either market it, or find a point of distribution for such a narrow focus. But, the wonderful thing about that is, it's like casting your bread on the water. You do a project because you really believe in the project and sure enough, it turns out to be an important part of some other aspect of your life that you didn't expect. Some of the music created for Children At Heart is now part of the Peter, Paul and Mary repertoire. So, there is some cross polenization between the personal things and the group things.
Q - You're a busy guy!
A - It would certainly appear that way. I've been trying to cut it back, but sometimes I get overwhelmed. I was telling somebody the other day, I have so many irons in the fire that occasionally when I pull one out, the end of it will be burned off (laughs) It sat in the fire too long.