In these times, we must be mindful of the gift,
use our hands and hearts to lift
the fallen spirit in this land,
planting gardens in the sand
reaching out a helping hand … in these times.
Halfway through a recent performance in his hometown of Blue Hill, Maine, 85-year-old Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, reaches for the case behind him to show the crowd his latest project, an instrument he designed himself. Sitting on a stool at the microphone, he points out the instrument’s unique features: a round body like the African banjo, a short neck and eight paired steel strings like the Italian mandolin, and tuning like that of the Portuguese ukulele. Crediting master guitar-maker David LaPlante for its beauty and the sweet sound that Noel had imagined, he describes its conception as a celebration of America’s ethnic and musical diversity. Then he begins strumming “Dance to the Manulenjo,” the song he’d been immediately inspired to write after playing the instrument for the first time.
Noel is a familiar friend in this community where he and his wife, Betty, have lived since the early seventies. He has sung in the church choir and with pros and amateurs alike in countless local fundraisers. Even when Peter, Paul and Mary had been on tour, Noel came back to town with youthful exuberance for whatever was next, and no one here is surprised that his joyful creativity is still at play.
His performing career began in Birmingham, Michigan, where, as a high-school lover of jazz, pop, and standup comedy, he formed his prize-winning R & B band called “The Birds of Paradise.” At Michigan State University he was a popular emcee at campus events before heading to New York City in 1958. Soon he discovered Greenwich Village, started hanging out there to play chess and then landed a steady gig as singer and master of ceremonies at the Gaslight Cafe. It was there he caught the attention of Albert Grossman, who was manager at the time for activist folksinger Peter Yarrow and was looking for two more singers to complete his vision of a trio.
Peter, Paul and Mary released their first album in 1962, and with two more hit releases the following year, they energized the folk revival of the 1960s and brought songs of peace and social justice to a whole generation of rock ‘n rollers. Barely two years after their debut performance at the Village’s Bitter End, they were singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000 people at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic March on Washington. When asked in a 2020 interview what his most memorable time was in his five decades with the trio, Noel cited that day in Washington all those years ago. “It awakened me,” he said. “It awakened all of us.”
In 1969, after nearly a decade of constant travel and performing which, in that year alone, included over 200 concerts covering five countries, Noel had an even deeper awakening, this one of the spirit, renewing his Christian faith and shifting his focus from the world stage to matters closer to home. “My perspective on everything changed,” he has said, “and I am immensely grateful for it.”
The following year, as the trio began what they later referred to as their “seven years off for good behavior,” he produced his first solo album. Released in 1971, it included the widely popular “Wedding Song,” penned for the occasion of Peter’s marriage to Marybeth McCarthy. Believing that he was merely the steward of a song that had been given to him for the occasion, Noel assigned royalties to the Public Domain Foundation (PDF), which has since raised more than $2 million supporting social and charitable causes around the world.
By 1974, inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing’s book “Living the Good Life,” Noel and Betty had left New York City and settled with their young family into rural life in Blue Hill. Noel oversaw the renovation of a four-story henhouse on his property and installed a recording studio on the fourth floor, establishing Neworld Media. Here he encouraged and recorded up-and-coming Maine artists like David Mallett, now a fellow Maine treasure, and Noel’s own Bodyworks band, a dynamic group of musicians and rare liberals in the Christian Music genre, with whom he produced three albums between 1979 and 1985. Also at the henhouse, on a rainy May 1st in 1988, PDF funds helped launch WERU-FM, a non-profit community-supported radio station, a “voice of many voices” broadcasting from Blue Hill Mountain and still thriving today. And taking to heart the belief in the power of music to create social change, Noel and his daughter Liz Stookey Sunde co-founded, in the year 2000, Music To Life, a non-profit organization that supports new artists of varying ethnicity and musical genres committed to addressing social and environmental problems and furthering the cause of civil and human rights.
Noel’s own songwriting has addressed world issues straight on, as in “El Salvador” and “In These Times,” and more intimately, in “Jean Claude,” and “The Connection.” These songs are included in “Just Causes,” his 2020 CD in which each of fifteen songs addresses a global issue that is matched with an organization earmarked for its share of the album proceeds.
“To sing folk music is, ultimately, to live its ethic,“ Noel stated in the autobiographical Fifty Years – In Music and Life, “and, whether in the context of my family, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Bodyworks band, or my long and abiding respect for my friends and fellow folkies, I am continually amazed and thankful for all of the coincidences that continue to make up my life.”
Back at the Blue Hill concert, Noel’s song “Dance to the Manulenjo” unfolds a story about a fractured House of Congress and a musician arriving there with his manulenjo to call the people to dance. The joy in the audience becomes palpable as, verse by verse, hope rises once again in the image of an undaunted musician facing the brokenness and playing the tune.
Noel lives in Blue Hill, Maine with his wife Betty Bannard Stookey, an ordained Congregational minister, former chaplain at the Northfield Mt. Herman School and co-creator with Noel of “One Light Many Candles,” a multi-faith presentation of readings and song.
– authored by Rebecca McCall
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