It’s magic and you don’t want to know
Just how it’s done, it would ruin the show
You’ve just got to believe
‘Cause believing is what makes it happen
It’s July 14, 2016, and on this very hot and humid summer evening, audience members are happily streaming in to the wonderfully cool auditorium at the Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC) in Englewood, NJ.
In front of the draped crimson velvet curtain facing outward are two microphones standing as if waiting for an old couple to take their places and look into one another’s eyes — golden friends there to greet one another as much as they’re there to greet their throng of adoring fans.
Just minutes before, though, behind the large auditorium and just one flight up the stairs is the place where the world-famous troubadours — Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey — are in their dressing rooms anticipating that magical moment.
Yarrow and Stookey, of course, were part of the legendary folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, who set the world’s ears listening to music that helped change the world.
Says Liz Stookey-Sunde, Noel Paul Stookey’s daughter, standing out in the hallway outside of her famous dad’s dressing room, “Like my dad always says, ‘Music opens the heart so the mind can learn.’”
And isn’t that exactly what Peter, Paul and Mary’s music has done for over a half-century now?
Stookey-Sunde now runs music2life.org, a creative consulting group that facilitates the use of music to help businesses and nonprofits increase awareness and support for various social causes, using such modern musical genres as hip-hop and reggae. Started by her dad, Noel Paul, the organization stands poised to help businesses and nonprofits “build transformative moments” for social good because, as she notes Dad likes to say, “If you do not use the power of music to create a transformative moment, it is a crime.”
Stookey-Sunde goes on to reveal that growing up with such a famous father had its “pluses and minuses.” One of her childhood memories involves seeing her father on stage and “wondering how can I compete with how happy he is?,” thinking, “What can I do to make him laugh?”
On the softer and fuzzier side, however, was the “folk culture” which Stookey-Sunde remembers was embraced backstage at the many Peter, Paul and Mary concerts she attended. Describing herself as “a career audience member,” Stookey-Sunde recalls feeling enveloped as “part of a greater whole” — a member of a “bigger family” — and feeling “welcomed as a part of that family,” explaining, “The artists hung out together and felt safe together for they understood one another and were open about their feelings.”
Downstairs in the auditorium at Englewood’s historic BergenPAC, the overhead lights start to dim and the crowd starts to applaud. Running lights come on to illuminate a path on the red and gold carpet for the almost-late-comers who are presently scurrying to their seats, anxious to avoid missing a single moment.
And then it happens.
Arm-in-arm, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey — two iconic folk troubadours — are greeted with a standing ovation even before a single guitar is strummed.
The duo launches into Yarrow’s original PP&M composition, “Weave Me the Sunshine,” and the pair play their guitars and sing to each other like long lost friends, accompanied on stand-up bass by John Miller and mandolin by Paul Prestopino, weaving those spellbinding harmonies up, down, and around each other, turning melodies into harmonies and back again.
Stookey-Sunde contends that, without the presence of the late Mary Travers who “kind of kept them in line,” when the two men are on-stage these days, “It’s almost like a comedy routine of Matthau and Lemmon! They’re like an old married couple; they have a lovely rapport, a lovely exchange.”
And true to form, at BergenPAC, the duo addresses the crowd — simultaneously talking over one another — as peals of laughter roll through the audience. And then, with perfect comedic timing, the pair stops cold to look directly out at the members of the audience to try to ‘figure out’ just why they are in hysterics.
Peter says, “We invite you to participate in this anarchy, too.” He explains to the audience, “You are allowed to sing anytime during the performance,” but firmly goes on to add, “but only if you sing the song we are singing.”
Launching into PP&M’s famous “Garden Song,” and, then, the ubiquitous “Puff the Magic Dragon,” the audience complies, joining in on the famous chorus, “Puff the Magic Dragon lives by the sea…”
Admitting to the audience that “50 years is a lot of material to go through,” Stookey and Yarrow perform Tim Bay’s poignant PP&M song, “It’s Magic,” a contemporary masterpiece which cleverly intersperses slices of magical life experiences including seeing a magician perform, falling in love for the first time, and beholding the miracle of birth. In so doing, they completely steal the hearts of everyone listening.
Suddenly, however, the mood shifts when Noel Paul sees a cell phone camera flash go off in the audience and jokes that he “wasn’t ready.” Then, he poses when he sees the flash go off again, takes a moment to collect his thoughts, and wryly responds, “Now I’m going to take out my iPhone and take a picture of you,” much to the delight of the audience.
Before the show, when asked what it’s like to perform live in New Jersey, Stookey, currently from Maine, notes that everybody has a Jersey connection revealing, “My wife is from Westfield.” He also adds that his long-time colleague, Kenny Fritz, a music producer of PP&M recordings and a director of some of their well-known PBS specials, is from Westfield, NJ, as well. Recalling days of performing at such well-known Jersey concert venues as The Garden State (currently PNC Bank) Arts Center and The Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, Stookey exclaims, “It ain’t called the Garden State for nothing,” going on to note that, as a former resident of Pennsylvania, he especially loves the rolling hills of western NJ.
Yarrow and Stookey perform a medley of civil rights songs including “This Little Light of Mine,” teaching the audience the lyrics to “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?,” playing their anti-bullying song, “Don’t Laugh at Me,” and presenting a poignant version of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” They follow that up with a rousing version of Yarrow’s composition, “Light One Candle,” the excellent new sound system at BergenPAC reproducing the music as pristinely as possible to the delight of this audience of classic folk music lovers.
Explaining to the crowd that, “You can say an awful lot with intention,” Stookey performs a solo version of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” changing the lyrics and reinterpreting John Lennon’s meaning both for humor and pathos. Next, he plays a solo version of a song to which, he says, he added some “Stookey chords,” borrowing musically from Erik Satie, Johnny Mercer, and Henry Mancini. Arranged for his wife at a point when they were living across the Atlantic from one another, Stookey sings a magical and heartfelt version of “Moon River,” the audience clearly responding to his intention within this emotional performance.
Yarrow follows with two solo vocal performances of his own, the PP&M classic, “Stewball,” informing the audience, “If we bet on what’s good inside of us then we are truly free,” and a new song called “The Children Are Listening,” both accompanied by Paul Prestopino on guitar and bassist John Miller, recognized by many as the lovable drug-dealing bass player in Amazon Prime’s hit television series, Mozart in the Jungle.
According to Noel Paul’s daughter, Liz, as a child, she always thought “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was a song her dad wrote especially for her. As a girl, she had no idea it had been written by John Denver, but she strongly identified with the “taxi’s waiting, he’s blowin’ his horn” lyric “because that’s what always happened each time Dad had to leave and go back out on the road.” That said, she now notes with a twinkle, that she never really quite understood why her Dad would have included that part in the song “about the wedding ring!”
Standing to the side of the audience, Liz had a chance to relive such personal memories when her dad and his long-time colleague — “two strong males being themselves,” as she refers to them — invite the entire audience to join them in singing Peter, Paul and Mary’s #1 hit, “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” As the two friends lead one another through the piece, they sing to each other, interweaving their perfectly-blended voices, and bringing the crowd to its feet as they end with Peter’s touching message, “Mary, we hate to see you go.”
And if that isn’t enough, the men come back with such PP&M classics as Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Then, after explaining, “We do love America and we are so fortunate to live here,” but “we want our country to live up to its promise,” Yarrow and Stookey end this enchanted evening of musical magic with a rip-roaring version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” the entire audience singing, clapping, smiling, and responding with yet another heartfelt standing ovation.
As the crowd exits out into the thick humid nighttime summer haze, many talk amongst themselves about strong Jersey musical memories which this evening’s performance has rekindled for them. “Peter, Paul and Mary was the first concert I’d ever been to,” exclaims one woman, playfully asking her husband to close his ears when she adds, “It was back in the 1970s at the Garden State Arts Center and I was on a date with a boy.”
Likewise, a man on the street tells his friends — along with anyone else who will listen — that he could identify perfectly with Peter, Paul and Mary’s Little League baseball song, “Right Field,” as the exact same thing that happened to the boy in the song happened to him recalling, “The whole team was yelling and I wasn’t paying attention, and then this baseball falls into my glove — but it was my LEFT glove!”
So with all that it conjures up — all that it makes us see, all that it helps us to experience, and all that it allows us to feel — how can we explain the power of Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey’s music?
For more on Peter Yarrow, please see peteryarrow.net. For more on Noel Paul Stookey, see noelpaulstookey.com. For more on the recently released Peter, Paul and Mary album, Discovered, see peterpaulandmary.com. Lastly, for great future programming at BergenPAC, please see bergenpac.org.