It’s funny how you can read or hear something dozens, if not hundreds of times, when all of a sudden the message hits you in a way so different it totally changes your perception forever. That happened in two instances to singer-songwriter Noel Paul Stookey and the result is his new album, “Just Causes”. After many years as one third of the iconic trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Noel struck out on his own on what has been a successful solo career. He co-wrote, “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” which was a hit for the trio and his best-known composition is, “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)” which he wrote for Peter Yarrow’s wedding. But it was a song called “Tom Quick” from Noel’s 1977 album, “Something New And Fresh” which was partly responsible for the release of “Just Causes” and the concept behind the album.
“After 50 years you will occasionally stumble across something you did creatively, particularly as a singer-songwriter, that you’ve forgotten about but is on an old album”, he says from California. “I happened to come across a song written by an Australian by the name of Gary Shearston. During one of his visits to America he saw a sign in Pennsylvania that spoke about an 'Indian Slayer’ who evidently was a hero. (When I first recorded the song) I had not really paid attention to the lyric of the body of the tune but had been moved by the chorus that said, ‘I feel the Old World dying, spread-eagled on the wall/and up and down the pathway you can hear the signposts call/The world is standing my friend on its ear just listening for the fall’. I recorded this in the 70s which was a pretty tumultuous time with the anti-war movement, my leaving (Peter, Paul and Mary) and my having kind of a spiritual renaissance. So I really got into the chorus but hadn’t thought about the context of the verses which deal with a kind of revenge this man exercised on Indigenous people. I thought the time had come again that we need to address some of these past sins of our awkward growing up as a nation.”
The other half of “Just Causes” inspiration came to Noel while in the frozen food section of his grocery store, courtesy of “Newman’s Own” pizza.
“How many times have I seen ‘100% Profits to Charity’ on all of (Paul Newman’s) food products, not just the pizza boxes. I think there just comes a time however when that makes sense. I looked at the metaphorical ‘frozen song section’ of my freezer”, he laughs, “and saw that over 50 years I had some songs that were particularly pertinent to causes. Maybe that’s another aspect that was sort of surprising, although it shouldn’t, that many of these tunes are still incredibly relevant. The environmental tunes will always be, (and) the lack of respect for Indigenous folks. So yes, it is amazing how time can change context.”
The end result of these two realizations for Noel from “Tom Quick” and “Newman’s Own” lead to the release of “Just Causes”, where the profits from 15 songs will be donated to 15 different charities.
“I realized I could put out an album of material that spans 50 years and give the net proceeds to charities or non-profits that were thematically described in each song”, he says. “To a large extent I was successful and I was helped by a lot of people, guided to what they suggested would be the proper non-profit to give to. It’s been a pretty exciting ride. The people in the non-profits have been very pleased, of course, to get kind of a freebie and to a large extent I’ve felt like I’m contributing the history of (Peter, Paul and Mary), as well as my own personal (history) to the work these good folks are doing. It was only when I realized that, because I’ve always been kind of a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ to the Folk idiom, it was/is a relatively new concept to me. I would only write, not as a discipline, but as a cathartic response to issues that I thought weren’t being served by music. Peter and Mary were so well versed in songs of cause and concern that they became sort of my mentors. Then of course there was Pete Seeger, Josh White and Woody (Guthrie), and the realization that music could speak to the concerns in informative, and sometimes, inspiring ways.”
The concept of connecting a song with a charity actually isn’t a new one for Noel. The royalties from “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)” have been going to a charity ever since he wrote it.
“That was fated to be, honestly Jan”, he says. “(The Wedding Song) was prayed for. It wasn’t like ‘The Muse’ arrived and I decided it would be cute to give to a foundation. The mechanics of writing a song and having it put out on a record are such that the collecting agencies, (ASCAP, BMI), require a songwriter’s name to be there. Because I had prayed, literally I had asked the big ‘YOU’ how the divine would manifest itself at Peter's wedding, I truly felt that if I were to take on the mantel of the writing that song, it would be improper. I wasn’t sure a bolt of lightning would come down (laughs) but I felt totally wrong claiming the credit for it. (But) if I don’t put a name down then the money goes into, say (paving) a portion of the parking lot at Warner Brothers Records. If I do put a name down, then let’s see if we can’t put it down for something that can do some good. So I created the Public Domain Foundation and distributed the funds that came into it in much the same way as the lyrics came to me.”
Groups as diverse as Oxfam, to a small church in Alabama which needed its roof fixed, have benefitted from the foundation.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to participate in somebody’s good works.”
The 50 years of work by Noel Paul Stookey isn’t over by a long shot. There’s another album to release which was delayed by the pandemic.
“As long as there’s something to sing about, I will”, he says. "As long as I’m writing and commenting, and I feel my comments are worthwhile and not just a rehash, I don’t think my life will be complete until it's over.”
For more information on Noel Paul Stookey and “Just Causes”, go to www.noelpaulstookey.com.