Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer
Noel Paul Stookey from Peter, Paul and Mary has rewritten “America the Beautiful.” His wife called him audacious, but Stookey said he was only following the spirit and tradition of folk music.
Although some believe folk music to be dead, Stookey said it is alive and thriving. His own songwriting is a testament and only part of a movement inspired by the folk era of the 1960s that redefined music’s role in the world. Peter, Paul and Mary are some of the unquestionable leaders of that musical era.
Stookey and Peter Yarrow will perform at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, in a concert “Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Peter, Paul and Mary.” It will be their fourth time performing in Chautauqua, but their first performance without Mary, who died in 2009.
The iconic trio released its self-titled debut album in 1962 with the hit singles “If I Had a Hammer” and “Lemon Tree.” The trio would produce 10 other albums that decade, notably featuring classics such as “Puff, The Magic Dragon” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
The group disbanded in 1970 so the members could explore their careers as solo artists. They needed the opportunity to define themselves as individuals. In 1978, they reunited for a concert protesting nuclear energy. Since then, they produced reunion albums and toured together once more as Peter, Paul and Mary.
“We tend to do a lot of trio songs, and that, in a sense, kind of pays homage to Mary,” Stookey said. “And it’s almost like … the audience becomes Mary’s voice, to a large extent.”
In concert, Yarrow and Stookey are conscious and respectful of tradition and of their own legacy, and will play a selection of classics. However, they also honor the spirit of folk in pushing forward with new songs from both of their solo projects.
“I know that our audiences are very loyal and, to some extent, come to these concerts for nostalgic reasons,” Stookey said.
But one of the defining aspects of folk music is that it moves forward with the times, Stookey said.
“Contemporary events and circumstances really demand a kind of musical inspection of our current landscape,” he said.
That is perhaps one of the reasons why Stookey rewrote the second and third verses of “America the Beautiful” on his latest solo album, One & Many, coming out on Aug. 22. He laughed at passages with “pilgrim feet” and “alabaster cities,” arguing that they could be changed to better, more truthfully reflect America at the present moment.
“What the music of the ’60s really did was gave permission to popular music, to radio and singer-songwriters to write songs about stuff other than just love ballads,” Stookey said. “It reawakened America’s interest in its own conscience.”
Stookey said that when the trio first formed in Greenwich Village, nobody knew the same version of the same song. Songwriters exercised plenty of artistic license, changing lyrics to what suited them or felt truthful to them.
“If there was something in the lyric you didn’t agree with, then you changed it,” Stookey said. “You were empowered and almost obligated to as a responsible folk singer to make it true to yourself.”
In 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary famously participated in the march on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., along with other peace-seeking musicians such as Bob Dylan, whose songs they covered as chart-topping singles on more than one occasion.
“There’s no question that the music was part of the peaceful process,” Stookey said. He said “Blowin’ in the Wind” was adopted as an anthem by the people overthrowing the regime in the Philippines, and “If I Had a Hammer” had a role in Egypt and Syria.
“I think songs of freedom are very galvanizing to people,” Stookey said. “And it does make a difference.”
Folk music, as Stookey insists, did not die out in the ’60s. There is a slew of contemporary artists that address contemporary issues, including Bono, Rage Against the Machine and John Mellencamp.
Folk music opened the door for all other genres of music to focus on subjects like social change, Stookey said.
“Music gives us all a chance to hold hands and hope,” Stookey said. “And herein lies, I think, the real power of it — therein lies love. Because when two or more people are gathered for equity and compassion, love is dwelling there.”
Stookey and Yarrow will also be signing books at 1 p.m. today as part of an effort to publicize their latest children’s book, It’s Raining, It’s Pouring. The book follows a series of about six other large format children’s books, such as Puff, the Magic Dragon, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
“It’s one of the last holdouts in the analog world. Everything else being downloadable … or electronically reproducible, but the tangible aspect of actually holding a book in your hand with your kid is pretty attractive,” Stookey said. “And especially when it’s a song that they know.”