BLUE HILL, Maine — “I was born about 10,000 years ago, and there’s nothing in this world that I don’t know. I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring around the roses, and I’ll whoop the guy that says it isn’t so,” Noel Paul Stookey sings, his folksy croon accompanied by a smile.
Stookey is best known by his stage name, Paul — one-third of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. The band got its name from the old folk song he sings from his Blue Hill home, where he sits in his sunroom, sipping chai tea beside his family’s Christmas tree. The buzz of the dryer sounds in the background and the ocean stretches out behind him, calm and serene on this foggy day. He takes off his glasses and tucks them away in his pocket before settling into his chair. It’s clear that he’s at home.
Stookey recently unveiled a new project called “At Home: The Maine Tour,” continuing a solo career that began while he sang as part of the famed trio.
“At Home” was released on Sept. 14 as a combined DVD/CD package of 24 songs that provide footage of performances in the towns of Boothbay, Brownfield, Bucksport, Camden, Eastport, Ellsworth, Jonesport, Ogunquit and Stonington. He visited these towns as part of a tour of the state. The video was recorded and edited by Stookey, who taped cameras to guitar and microphone stands to get the footage needed to compile the DVD.
Stookey, his wife, Betty, and their three daughters moved to Maine over 40 years ago. During that time Stookey performed the occasional benefit concert in Maine, but he had never done a tour of the state in one season, and decided that it was time to do so.
“I’ve never had a consistent tour or been able to sing the same songs to, say, nine audiences in the state of Maine at the same time. It’s always been very piecemeal,” Stookey said. “This was a chance to, in a sense, share the most recently created music with an audience that I have known off and on for a long time.”
As part of Peter, Paul and Mary, Stookey was already a familiar face, which drew attention to his performances in Maine, while also reminding viewers of the famed trio.
“When I get on stage, people who have never seen one of my solo performances before wonder if they’re gonna get ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ and 12 other hits. And I remind them that the reason they liked folk music to begin with was because it commented on the times in which they lived,” Stookey said. “I will refer to the trio, obviously — how could I avoid it? I wouldn’t want to. I owe a great deal to the trio.”
As both a member of the group and as a solo artist, Stookey became part of an American folk music revival that began to change the landscape of musical expression. His music has since been infused with an ethic and drive to create pieces that speak to larger issues.
“People realized that music didn’t always have to be about dating behavior, that, in fact, you could talk about things that were relevant in our everyday lives. And, quite frankly, some of them were quite concerning,” Stookey said.
Stookey marched with 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington, where Peter, Paul and Mary performed “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” and heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s revolutionary “I Have a Dream” speech. The group traveled to Nicaragua and El Salvador for philanthropic purposes. They stood up for those in unions. They attempted to create music that came from a place of authenticity.
In 1970, the group broke up, pursuing individual undertakings and tending the beginnings of each of their families.
“Then they tried to put a nuclear generator online near the San Andreas fault in California and Peter said, ‘Hey, can you come out of retirement and sing with Mary and I?’ That was in 1978. And we began work again in our second career. We worked 10 years from ’60 to ’70 and those really were cataclysmal years for the emergence of music as verbalizing what everybody was feeling about the times in which we lived,” Stookey said.
From that point on the trio continued to perform together, but in 2004, Mary Travers was diagnosed with leukemia. She passed in 2009, but still has a presence on stage when Peter and Paul do shows together.
“Sweetly enough, if you confess immediately that you’re missing somebody … the audience responds really warmly and they sing Mary’s part. Peter and I do our harmony parts and play guitar. At the end of two hours, there’s no doubt that Mary was as important to the sound as she was,” Stookey said.
The trio was able to infuse their music with political concerns and Stookey’s album reflects that initial ethic, albeit with a contemporary concern for more immediate issues, like immigration.
“The song that I wrote, ‘Familia Del Corazon,’ which is on the ‘At Home’ album, is more about the promise that sits out there in New York Harbor to all people who want a fresh start, who believe in equality, who are seeking justice and equity. So it’s written from a compassionate point of view,” Stookey said.
In 2013 Peter and Paul also returned to Washington, 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They were joined at the anniversary performance by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, parents of teenager Trayvon Martin, victim of a fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch captain, and Mark Barden, father of Daniel Barden, one of the victims killed on Dec. 14, 2012, in a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
For Stookey, music is the best way he can express his ideas. He thinks in terms of tonality, and that has brought him to create more pieces that revive the ideals behind folk music.
As far as the content of the album, Stookey had a simple response when asked if he had a favorite song.
“[Mary Travers] had the greatest answer for that. She said, ‘Songs are like children and some behave better sometimes than others.’”
Even as a solo artist, Stookey continues to create with his conscience in mind. From songs on the album like “Nukes R Nuts,” which goes, “[N]ukes are nuts, it’s a crazy thing /
just like squirrels, waiting for the spring / we hide ’em underground; waiting for a day /
when some crazy squirrel would try to blow us all away …” to others like “In These Times,” Stookey has dedicated himself to a philanthropy that is conveyed through music. And yet what it has provided him has been equally as rewarding.
“Everything that you participate in that requires you giving something of yourself, inevitably returns more to you than you gave,” Stookey said. “I’ve just been really blessed to have all of that as part of who I am.”