All his bags were packed and he was ready to go.
It was the first day of March and Noel Paul Stookey was having a bad travel day. Stookey, aka “Paul” of Peter, Paul & Mary, was supposed to be relaxing in a hotel room in Detroit where the trio was scheduled to perform that night. Instead, he was sitting in an airport in Boston.
“There was a flight cancellation in Bangor,” he said on my voice mail. “The rescheduled plane out of Boston doesn’t leave for an hour and a half. These things happen more and more these days, don’t they?”
In his typical fashion, he was more philosophical than frustrated. He’s been in many an airport since first blending his warm baritone with the voices of Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers in 1961. The threesome flies into Newport News Friday night for a performance at the Ferguson Center, and Stookey himself had just returned from Japan a few days before that Boston layover.
“I’ve had a friend over there for forty years or so,” he said when I returned his call. “He knew that I was coming over in May to do some concerts, and he said, ‘There’s this situation over here and you are the guy to write this song.’ Well, I think he was right because they are a very romantic, sweet people, and I tend to write sappy stuff!”
The “situation” was the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and ‘80s to help in training spies on how to act in other countries. One story in particular caught Stookey’s attention, that of a thirteen year old girl abducted on her way home from school in 1977. It inspired him to write “Song for Megumi,” a beautiful ballad he’ll perform at the Ferguson Friday night.
“I went over to Japan to sing for the prime minister,” he said, “and to spend four or five days doing press for the abductees’ parents and cause.”
The question is what has happened to the abductees. North Korea has admitted thirteen kidnappings and returned five to their families. But the government of Kim Jong-il claims the others are no longer alive. The Japanese dispute the number and their fate, and want a full accounting.
“It’s really not unusual for folk music to take that kind of position,” Stookey said. “Folk music puts a face to the pain and makes it personal. It personifies that which could be otherwise objectified. That’s what we’re supposed to do because this is a real world we live in, not a world of abstracts where politicians make sweeping gestures disregarding human rights. So we’re there as a burr under the saddle to remind them that it’s all about people.”
Peter, Paul & Mary have been a burr under the saddle since their beginnings. They sang “If I Had a Hammer” in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. They were deeply committed to the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era. One of Stookey’s most memorable songs is “El Salvador,” written during the Reagan administration’s misadventures in Central America in the mid ‘80s.
These days, though the political flame has obviously not been extinguished, the trio is most excited just to be singing together. Mary Travers was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 and given long odds on survival. She underwent a risky bone marrow transplant the following year.
“The biggest thing to celebrate is Mary’s continual improvement,” Stookey said. “The bone marrow transplant was a complete success and there’s no sign of the disease at all. So it’s just a question of getting her stamina back. She has lost weight and she decided that she’d lose her hair too. So she’s got a much shorter haircut that looks beautiful on her.”
Last summer the trio was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“I felt a little like a fish out of water,” Stookey admitted, “because I think we were essentially purveyors of other songwriters. That’s not to say that we don’t have a list of songs that we’re pleased with. But they’re not exactly ‘My Blue Heaven’ or ‘Night and Day!’”
I asked what lay ahead for Peter, Paul & Mary.
“There’s some talk now about the solo years being re-released,” he replied. “So they would take the Peter, the Paul And, and the Mary, and put them together into a three-CD package with some bonus tracks and some history on our separate works.
“And then following that, the album that looks to be most on the horizon is a kind of…to give you some background, every once in a while we will do something with a symphony orchestra. At first it was just the classics that were put in a symphonic setting, but [music director] Bob De Cormier is so talented that a lot of the new material has been set to symphonics as well. So I think we’re leaning towards the doing of a full-dress Peter, Paul & Mary tuxedo-and-symphony-orchestra rendition of the tunes. There will probably be three or four brand new ones, but I would say there’ll be at least eight from the older catalog.”
We wrapped up our conversation later in the day. It was after 6:00 pm, and Noel had landed in Detroit, sounding weary but glad to be there more than twelve hours after leaving his home in Blue Hill, Maine:
“I’m in a car, we’re in contact with the road, a very nice man helped me with my luggage and I think I’m finally going to get to the destination. I’ll probably talk about it [onstage] tonight. The idea is to be as transparent as possible.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.