Noel Paul Stookey on his porch in Blue Hill. Photo by Sally Farr

Noel Paul Stookey first gained fame as a singer and activist with Peter, Paul and Mary nearly 60 years ago. As part of that folk trio, he sang to more than 200,000 people during the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. also delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, he doesn’t make hit records too often and performs for slightly smaller crowds. But the 83-year-old Blue Hill resident is still singing about the need for peace and equality and still working toward those ends through his music.

In March, he released an album called “Just Causes,” with proceeds earmarked for 15 nonprofit groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Oxfam America, Partnership to End Addiction, the Dallas Holocaust & Human Rights Museum and the Maine-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. The album will also raise money for Music to Life, a group Stookey founded with his daughter, Elizabeth Stookey Sunde, to help young activist artists. Music to Life provides money to artists, including some in Maine, and teaches skills needed to pursue their music and their activism, like grant writing.

Stookey says he’s simply trying to be a responsible world citizen, continuing to use his music and his name to encourage people to help each other. Young Maine musicians who have worked with him say Stookey’s enthusiasm and work ethic as a singer and activist are contagious.

Myles Bullen, a Portland poet and musician, is among the younger Maine artists Noel Paul Stookey has performed with or tried to help in some way. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“He’s the most youthfully energetic, humble human I’ve been able to watch,” said Myles Bullen, 29, a Portland-based poet and rapper who has benefited from Music to Life and has performed with Stookey several times. “He has pushed me to be a more engaging performer.”

In the early 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary became one of the best-known groups of the folk revival, known for music with an activist bent. They also had a run of Top 40 radio hits, including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” But around 1970, Stookey and his wife, Betty, decided they wanted to settle somewhere to raise their three children. With help from Mainer and veteran folk musician Gordon Bok, they discovered Blue Hill. Nowadays, they spend winters in California, to be near a daughter, but they come back to Maine in warmer weather and still consider it home.

Stookey says he wants to raise money for causes because so many of the problems that spurred a generation of activists and socially-conscious musicians in the 1960s are still with us – racial injustice, poverty and war among them. But he knows that new voices are needed to enlist and encourage a new generation of activists.

“It’s the young performers, people like Myles Bullen, who are talking to the under-21-year-olds, it’s not Grandpa Stookey,” he said. “That’s why I really want to encourage and reach out to them.”

The trio Peter, Paul and Mary – featuring Mainer Noel Paul Stookey on the far right – first gained fame in the 1960s. Photo by Sally Farr

IT BEGAN WITH A WEDDING

Stookey is not new at raising money for philanthropy through music. He started doing it in a big way in 1971. He was asked by Peter, Paul and Mary colleague Peter Yarrow to write something that would “bless” Yarrow’s impending wedding. Stookey didn’t think he was the person to be “dispensing blessings” on his own, so he prayed for inspiration. When the words and music came to him, he didn’t feel right claiming them as his own or making money off them. So when he later recorded “The Wedding Song (There is Love),” he created the Public Domain Foundation as recipient of the royalties and used the money for philanthropy and to help other socially-responsible artists.

The song was a top 25 radio hit and has been played at millions of weddings over the years. It has raised more than $2 million for the foundation, which in turn helps fund Music to Life.

The specific idea to make “Just Causes” came to Stookey after he bought a Newman’s Own frozen pizza from TradeWinds, a store in Blue Hill. He said the pledge on the box that 100 percent of the profits go to charity caught his eye. So he decided to make an album that would go to charity, but also hopefully raise awareness for a host of issues.

So for each of the 15 nonprofit groups that benefit from “Just Causes,” Stookey picked a song that had a connection to its cause. The songs were all previously recorded by Stookey at some point in his career, but not by Peter, Paul and Mary.

His song “The Connection” talks about the link between terrorist funding and drug trafficking, and is coupled on the album with the nonprofit group Partnership to End Addiction. “Danny’s Downs” is a song about a family discovering the upside of welcoming a Down syndrome child, and is on the album to bring attention to the National Down Syndrome Congress. “Jean Claude,” about a Holocaust survivor, benefits the Dallas Holocaust & Human Rights Museum. Stookey’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” includes two original verses he wrote about immigrants and the environment and is paired on the album with People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group. The album is being sold online through Amazon and elsewhere, for a suggested retail price of $15.99, and proceeds will be basically split 15 ways after recording, manufacturing and distribution costs are covered.

As the song on the album highlighting Maine’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Stookey picked “Familia Del Corazon” (“Family of the Heart”), which is about families coming to a new land for a new life. Stookey is a supporter of the work ILAP does in Maine, as the only statewide immigration legal services organization, working with more than 3,000 people a year. Throughout his time in Maine, Stookey has performed at many events and fundraisers for local groups, including for ILAP.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said the group was “honored” to be one of the album’s beneficiaries.

“It’s the strength of our community that allows us to push for a more just and equitable immigration system, and generous and engaged supporters like Noel help make this work possible,” Roche said.

FROM CIRCUS TO SOCIAL COMMENTARY

Stookey says he was attracted to show business at an early age. He used to put on a circus, using the family cat in place of a ferocious lion. He took up electric guitar while in high school in a Detroit suburb. He formed a band with some friends, in the early ’50s, before teenage garage bands were a thing. His high school band recorded an album and even appeared on local TV.

He said he wrote “derivative” pop songs before he went to New York and became part of the socially-conscious folk revival scene there. He soon teamed with Yarrow and Mary Travers, who were much more politically aware at the time than he, Stookey said. They also were more steeped in the tradition of folk music as social commentary or protest vehicles, including the songs of Pete Seeger, The Weavers and Woody Guthrie.

“I was a Johnny-come-lately to folk music, but Peter and Mary were lefty New Yorkers who had marched on picket lines and done all sorts of things,” said Stookey. “I really owe a debt to folk music for making me see the possibilities of speaking to the needs of people, more than just my own needs or romantic notions of emotion.”

The members of Peter, Paul and Mary went their separate ways musically around 1970, around the same time Stookey and his family settled in Maine. By the late ’70s, they decided to tour together again and continued to play together and record some albums until Travers’ death in 2009.

Shortly after settling in Blue Hill, Stookey got very involved in the community and especially its art scene. He opened a recording studio in a converted chicken coop, known as the Hen House, in Blue Hill and worked with Maine-based musicians like David Mallett. The studio is also where Blue Hill’s community radio station, WERU, began broadcasting from in the 1980s, with Stookey as one of its founders.

Even while living in Maine and working for various causes, Stookey still comments with his music on what’s going on in the world. In 2017, prompted by what he saw as an “egregious overreaching” of his powers by then-President Donald Trump, Stookey wrote a song called “Impeachable” to the tune of the Nat King Cole tune “Unforgettable” and put a video of himself singing it on YouTube.

Stookey has performed often in Maine over the years, including last fall when he was part of a virtual pops concert for the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

He’s also performed several times in recent years with Maine artists who have been part of the Music to Life program, including Bullen and singer-songwriter Emilia Dahlin of Gorham. The program helps artists working toward social change. Bullen, for instance, teaches creative writing to people recovering from addictions and volunteers in prisons and shelters. Dahlin is a performer and teacher who has has worked with immigrant mothers, and also hosted a family-friendly music series organized by the Maine Academy of Modern Music called “The Kids are Alright.”

Dahlin, 43, said working with Stookey and seeing how interested he is in what younger musicians are doing has been inspiring.

“He’s so gracious and he has a very palbable excitement and curiosity for what people are doing, ” said Dahlin. “He truly cares and is very dedicated to helping others. He’s been an incredible mentor.”


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