BY DAVID A WOODS | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Chances are you know Noel Paul Stookey as part of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, a name synonymous with American folk music of the ’60s and ’70s. Their best-known songs—“If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “The Wedding Song (There Is Love),” and so many others—are woven into the musical tapestry of American music. Stookey, now 83, performed with PP&M until the death of Mary Travers in 2009 and has continued an active musical career, including occasionally performing with former trio mate Peter Yarrow. All along, too, he has been deeply involved in numerous charitable causes, many informed by his deep faith. As he puts it simply, “I’ve had a very rich life, thanks to a 50-year career with Peter and Mary and a 57-year marriage to my high school dream girl, Betty.”
Less known is that Noel (as he always been known outside of PP&M) played ukulele in his pre-folk days. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his love of the instrument.
You’re best known as a guitar player, of course, but wasn’t the ukulele a part of your musical background?
Yes, I absolutely played ukulele! It’s no secret that I learned most of what I know about making music from the four strings of a ukulele. Actually, the uke was the basis of my learning jazz chords—you know, three notes minimum to make a chord, but then you have the choice of what color to add with the fourth string. My dad had a 4-string tenor guitar that he tuned like a ukulele, which was my first awareness of music—that and singing “The Too Fat Polka” with the family in the car listening to Arthur Godfrey, who popularized the uke for his radio and TV fans.
In 1950, with a high schol buddy who had a tape recorder, we recorded “radio shows” featuring a character I created called Smilin’ Jack McConnell, who played uke, sang, and told stories.
But then my ukulele life was interrupted by the arrival of an electric guitar in 1952, and I started the Birds of Paradise rhythm & blues group. We even released an album—pretty advanced for high school kids—and, one thing leading to another, I discovered with awe the intimacy and power of the acoustic classical nylon-string guitar. I traded in my hollowbody Kay [electric] for a Martin [acoustic] and never looked back.
That was then; how about now? Do you currently own an ukulele and do you play it?
I don’t play it as often as I do the guitar, but on occasion a circumstance will call for me to re-engage. As I assemble songs for an upcoming release called Fazz: Now and Then, I’ve recently been developing a tune written by master ukulelist Jim Beloff. It’s called “Charles Ives,” and it celebrates the life of the famous American composer who managed to balance a 9-to-5 insurance job with writing his groundbreaking music. We’ve morphed it into a combo ukulele-guitar arrangement, and frankly the two “additional” [guitar] strings are necessary, as they provide a bass movement for the accompaniment not easily extracted from a ukulele. [Written in 1994, “Charles Ives” appears in an orchestrated arrangement on Beloff’s 2018 album Two Ukulele Concertos, reviewed in the Winter 2018 issue of Ukulele. —Ed.]
Fazz: Now and Then. What’s the concept there?
Just as the uke led me to the guitar, the guitar has led me to investigate chords that are “alternative”—major 7ths, augmented, half-diminished, etc. Those chords are most times ill-suited for a straight-ahead folk tune, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” but many of the other songs arranged by Peter, Paul and Mary, like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” seemed to call for an emotional musical shading that complemented the lyric or mood.
Notwithstanding the academic approach or appreciation of what are often called jazz chords, the term “Fazz” was coined by saxophonist Paul Desmond when introducing a song that the trio performed with his group during a summer tour we shared with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. His actual introduction was something like, “I don’t know whether to call what we’re doing ‘fazz’ or ‘jolk,’” but given the usual dismissal given the folk idiom by jazz performers, we all had a sense of what his personal preference might have been!
A few years back, your PP&M songbooks taught me chords, tablature, fingerpicking and music theory. How valuable is it to learn the notes on the fretboard, chord and key structure, scales, the circle of 5ths, and so forth? Any tips for uke players who want to advance?
Sorry, I’m no help there at all! With two major exceptions—sessions with jazz guitarists each lasting about one hour—I learned everything I know by ear. That said, the four strings of the ukulele were/are the perfect learning launch pad for the ear. Honestly, it’s where I first learned how to hear and subsequently voice ascending and descending lines in the accompaniments to my songwriting.
Those songbooks—valuable to some, and you particularly—were created by the publishing companies, who would hire representatives with music theory backgrounds to analyze the chords that Peter [Yarrow] and I were playing on the various tunes. [Many of Peter, Paul and Mary’s songs with chords are available in a book of 43 songs: Peter, Paul and Mary: Ukulele Chord Songbook, published by Hal Leonard.—Ed.]
Have you ever written a song expressly for the ukulele?
Sure, but not so much for a commercial recording. I recently pulled together a simple tune called “Aloha Doris” for a dear friend and folk music supporter who was moving to Hawaii. Here are the lyrics:
When I say Aloha
It doesn’t mean goodbye
It just means I’ll see ya
In the bye and bye
Ah Doris don’t be blue
Sail on for Hawaii
Knowing we love you.
That pretty but simple song reminds us that even though ukulele music has grown in sophistication over time, with more and more players dipping into genres such as jazz, classical, and blues, the instrument is still best known for being a social instrument for expressing fun, joy, and heartfelt affections.
There’s no doubt that the ukulele is the go-to portable party axe, but more importantly in my mind, it provides an entry to the tuning and playing of almost any stringed instrument. The strings are soft on the fingers, the frets are close, and the neck is child-friendly—what’s not to love?