When Noel Paul Stookey — the "Paul" in the famed folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — takes the stage at the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis Wednesday for an evening of conversation and music, Stookey knows to expect questions about the group's past: What was it like to perform at the March on Washington in 1963? What was it like to be part of the New York City folk scene in the early 1960s, when the group was formed?
Stookey will be pleased to offer thoughtful and occasionally funny answers to those questions. But the 81-year-old won't want to spend the entire event focused on the past.
"As much as I enjoy celebrating the songs of the past with people," he said, "if that's all I did, I'd feel like a frozen food that's been brought out to thaw." And he quotes his contemporary, singer and songwriter Tom Paxton: "It's OK to look at the past, but you don't want to get caught staring at it."
Stookey, the next guest in Bob Santelli's "American Strings" series of musical conversations, will share stories and songs of the past — as well as offer updates about what he's up to these days — Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Majestic. (See the related story for event details.) Santelli, the director of popular music and performing arts at Oregon State University, will share the stage and guide the conversation.
Judging by the hour-long interview with The E earlier this week, it'll be a wide-ranging conversation.
Among Stookey's earliest musical memories: Singing "We Three Kings" as an 8- or 9-year-old growing up in Maryland: "I think the first step is to be comfortable with your voice," he said.
His father, a drummer, also was musically inclined, and the two of them would sing along to songs on the radio. "One fateful day," Stookey recalled, his father sang harmony: "I can't tell you what that did to the follicles in my ear canal."
Since then, he's had a love for the harmonies that were such an important part of the sound of Peter, Paul and Mary.
As for that trio, the harmony was "immediate," Stookey recalled. Albert Grossman, who at the time was managing Peter Yarrow (along with a rising singer and songwriter named Bob Dylan), was looking to form a trio and auditioned other singers. Mary Travers, a contralto, was a natural fit, as was Stookey, a baritone. Stookey also ended up playing what he called the "goofball" role in the trio.
The trio's first album, released in 1962, scored hits with songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Lemon Tree," won Grammy Awards and paved the way for a string of hits (including songs by Dylan) that stretched through the 1960s and culminated with "Leaving on a Jet Plane," the John Denver song that was their only No. 1 hit.
The group broke up in 1970 to pursue solo careers: "After investing 10 years in the group," Stookey said, "we took seven years off for what we referred to as good behavior." But the three reunited frequently for shows during the 1970s and eventually released another album, "Reunion," in 1978. The three performed together after that until Travers died in 2009 of complications from chemotherapy for leukemia. Since then, Stookey and Yarrow have frequently performed together and as solo artists.
From the start, Peter, Paul and Mary recorded original songs as well as folk-music standards and works by writers such as Dylan and Denver. In writing his own material, Stookey said, there was one paramount consideration: "If the music interfered with the concept of the lyrics, then the music was wrong. ... The idea was for the music to uphold the lyrics."
But the best songs, he said, arrive "spontaneously," with the music and lyrics flowing together (which is not to say that they don't require any additional work). Stookey said "The Wedding Song (There is Love)," arguably his best-known song — and one he wrote for Yarrow's wedding — arrived that way.
Stookey is still writing new material — and a recent politically flavored tune, a reworking of "Unforgettable" called "Unimpeachable," became a bit of a viral sensation online. Other songs delve deep into the mysteries of love, such as "Love With a Capital L." Another recent song, "Standing on the Shoulders (of Giants)" pays tribute to the great folk musicians who have inspired him over the years.
That inspiration goes forward: Stookey said he's encouraged by the number of younger musicians — "road warriors," he called them — who are firmly rooted in the folk tradition. And it's not unusual for younger musicians to ask him for advice about how to build a long-running career.
His advice: "Build your constituency. It seems simple, but if you can convince 25 people in a room that you've got something worth saying, then you can pretty much convince 25 people in another room of the same thing."