ALBANY, N.Y. — They might have been Peter, Noel and Mary, but the powers that be behind the group decided that Noel Paul Stookey's middle name sounded better with the others. So in public it was Paul.
Since Mary Travers died in September 2009 of the side effects of chemotherapy after treatment for leukemia, Stookey and Peter Yarrow have performed occasionally as a duo. As a trio, Peter, Paul and Mary defined the 1960s with such historically significant songs as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "If I Had a Hammer."
"These concerts, of which there have been maybe a dozen this year and might be as many as a half dozen next year, are part of a way for Peter and me to say goodbye to Mary with an audience," says Stookey in a recent phone interview from his home on the coast of Maine. "And the audience ends up to a large extent becoming Mary by virtue of singing her part, while Peter and I do the familiar harmonies."
The male duo have published an illustrated book of the classic poem "The Night Before Christmas" by Imagine/Peter Yarrow Books. Embedded in the back cover, a three-track CD contains Peter, Paul and Mary's 1963 holiday hit "A' Soalin" and two versions of the Christmas poem — Stookey's enchanting musical rendition, accompanied by his guitar, and Travers' haunting reading, accompanied by a gentle background score written by Yarrow and Stookey.
The poem by Clement C. Moore, originally titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas," was first published Dec. 23, 1823, in the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel (even though the book's back flap reads the "New York Sentinel"). Travers' recording of it last year was the last recording she made.
"Peter and the recording engineer visited Mary in her home in Connecticut to record the piece," Stookey says. "Mary was in fragile health at that point. She was on oxygen. She recorded it, I think, in June and passed away in September.
"So rather than reading the poem in a proclamation voice, or an oratorical voice, she read it almost as if she were confiding it to a child, as if she were telling the poem in a conspiratorial whisper before bedtime. And of course it's absolutely lovely, charming and devastating."
Even though Travers was sick, she embraced the project, Stookey says. She loved poetry, he says.
"This was not stepping out for her so much as it was a continuance of her interest and unique contribution to the group," he says, beginning to laugh, "aside from the fact that she was a dish, a 5-foot-10 bombshell."
Travers was the beautiful blonde, Yarrow the serious male, and Stookey the lanky cut-up. He had been working as a stand-up comedian and folk singer in Greenwich Village when the three musicians came together in 1961.
Their release the next year of the Lee Hays-Pete Seeger "If I Had a Hammer" propelled them to the forefront of the protest movement that marked the decade. Their defining moment may have been Aug. 28, 1963, when, as part of the massive "March on Washington," highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, they stood before the Lincoln Memorial and sang "If I Had a Hammer" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
"The March on Washington, or meeting the Queen of England, or meeting the Beatles, those are major events that are a part of my life and memory," Stookey says. "But it's just as real to have somebody come up to us and say the classic, 'I grew up with your music.' And we're able to look them in the eye and say back, 'Yes, we grew up with our music, too.' We were all growing up in that era.
"And then they share some personal anecdote that makes their relationship to us that much more real. I think folk music kind of engenders this comradeship, this sense that we're consciously trying to make the world a better place. It's a very attractive community, very simpatico."
Did they make the world a better place?
"The short answer is, yes, I think the human spirit has been called to account," he says. "I think the propensity to ignore standards of human behavior, to ignore the abuses, has changed. There is a communal conscience that's been elevated by virtue of everything that's happened, starting in the '60s.
"I can't give full credit to folk music alone. But you must admit, at the hinge point between the mid-'50s and the mid-'60s, music became aware, or the artists involved in music became aware, that you could speak to the concerns of the community. You could say, 'How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?' Or you could say, 'If I had a hammer, I'd hammer out justice, I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters.'"Comment on this story
Peter, Paul and Mary performed together for 40 years. (They parted from 1970 to 1978 to pursue solo careers.) Even though the group won five Grammy Awards, produced 13 Top 40 hits and earned eight gold and five platinum albums, the song Stookey is best known for is one he never intended to release.
He wrote "The Wedding Song (There Is Love)" for Yarrow's wedding in 1969. He planned to sing it for the bride and groom, and that would be it. It was their song, he says. But after constant urging by the couple, Stookey recorded it for his first solo album, "Paul and," and created the charity organization Public Domain Foundation to receive the proceeds. According to its website, the foundation has given away about $1.5 million.
In all, Stookey has recorded more than 45 albums, as a soloist and with the trio. In January, he plans to record another. It's a bit edgy, he says, with a song about the connection between the Afghanistan war and the Taliban with drug use in the U.S. and another about two French boys, one of whom is Jewish and ends up in a concentration camp.
A sappy love song will be in there, too, and, he says, "I think essentially this new album is all about the capital "L" love, as opposed to the small "l" love. It's about the over-arching concept of love in our lives."