Noel Paul Stookey on the Peter, Paul and Mary Performance at the March on Washington

Noel Paul Stookey recalls his Birmingham roots and Peter, Paul and Mary’s iconic performance at the March on Washington 60 years ago.
On Aug. 28, 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary performed during the March on Washington before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. // Photograph by Rowland Scherman/USIA/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Aug. 28, 1963, was an especially significant and influential day for one graduate of Birmingham (now Seaholm) High School.

For 60 years ago, as a member of the chart-topping folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, 25-year-old Noel Paul Stookey performed “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the National Mall before a crowd of 250,000 heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the largest demonstration for human rights in American history.

Both songs became anthems for the Civil Rights Movement, while the trio’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which just over a week before had peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, revealed the troubadour’s genius to a much wider audience.

In 1963, with their perfectly blended three-part harmonies, stylized arrangements, and compelling songs, Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers quickly established themselves as the most popular and commercially successful group of the folk revival period while also becoming known for their activism.

That same year, Stookey married Betty Bannard, who had been a year behind him at Birmingham High and with whom he’d had a chance encounter at a New York subway stop.

Noel Stookey and Betty Bannard Stookey are also celebrating a 60-year anniversary. // Photograph by Lancia Smith

Formed in Greenwich Village just two years earlier, the trio had debuted with their eponymous album in May of 1962. It quickly reached No. 1 with hits “Lemon Tree” and “If I Had a Hammer” while selling more than 2 million albums. The day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, three of the top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 album chart were the trio’s first three albums, while three of their singles, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” were top 10 hits that year.

Speaking from his home in California (he has another in Maine), Stookey, now 85, reflects on the iconic Washington, D.C., performance.

“I didn’t have any outward perception of the moment like Mary did because I was too in the moment,” Stookey says. “But Mary commented to Peter as she looked out at the crowd, ‘We are watching history.’ Mary would have known because she had marched against the execution of the Rosenbergs, and Peter had been part of the political process a long time in New York. They were there before I was, and I owe a great deal to them.”

Even though the trio subsequently lost performance opportunities and record sales in several Southern states, they became even more active and participated in rallies supporting human rights, the peace movement, and causes as far away as El Salvador.

“If you were going to believe in the songs that you sang, then you were going to have to live them,” Stookey says.

After his sophomore year at Michigan State University, Stookey dropped out and in 1958 moved to a Greenwich Village apartment, where his roommate Tom Halsted snapped this portrait of him. // Photograph courtesy of Noel Stookey

The seeds for becoming a performer were first sowed after Stookey moved from Maryland to 288 West Lincoln in Birmingham at age 12 in 1950.

After first attending Barnum Junior High, Stookey attended the newly constructed Birmingham High School, where he drew cartoons and sometimes wrote features for The Highlander student newspaper, participated in the radio workshop, served as the master of ceremonies for the variety show, and along with friend Jim Mosby read morning announcements with dramatic flair while often interjecting bogus stories and humorous commercials for nonexistent products.

“It was a very progressive high school and unusual for its time for what it offered, including the Little Theater, which had great seating and a nice stage. It was a transformative time for me,” he says.

His life soon headed in a musical direction.

“If it wasn’t for working at a camera shop, maybe I wouldn’t have been in Peter, Paul and Mary, because Bob Luscombe, a fellow student salesman, found out I played guitar and wrote songs. He suggested that I have a concert. The first one I ever performed was in the basement of our home on Lincoln,” he says.

Stookey and some friends then formed an R&B band called The Birds of Paradise that sang on WTOP Radio before appearing twice on Ed McKenzie’s Saturday Party TV show on WXYZ, where the group won the “Battle of the Bands” contest. Half of the band’s only album, The Birds Fly Home, was recorded at the high school.

Stookey smiles at a 2016 performance with Peter Yarrow in Tarrytown, New York. // Photograph by Sally Farr

Having discovered that the trio’s five Grammy Awards were gold-plated leftover pressings from other artists, Stookey admits, “I have much more fondness for that funky little 6-by-6-inch plaque hanging on my wall that I received for winning the talent contest on the Ed McKenzie show.”

After graduating in 1955, Stookey attended Michigan State University and honed his performance skills there with an eye on a journalism career before dropping out after his sophomore year when his parents moved to Pennsylvania.

In 1958, he moved to Greenwich Village and before long was serving as an emcee and singing at the Gaslight Cafe, where manager Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan’s manager) convinced him to join his two clients Yarrow and Travers to form a trio. Grossman quickly convinced Stookey to use “Paul” as his stage name, although Stookey reclaimed “Noel” in the ’70s.

Unlike other folk groups, Peter, Paul and Mary survived the British Invasion, and in 1967, the LP Album 1700 contained their only No. 1 single, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and the No. 9 hit “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” co-written by Stookey, Jim Mason, and Birmingham High classmate Dave Dixon, a Detroit FM radio DJ.

But in 1970, the group disbanded, in part due to Stookey’s “spiritual transformation” and his desire to spend more time with his family, as each member pursued solo careers. (This was the same year that Yarrow pleaded guilty to a sexual offense against a 14-year-old girl before being later pardoned by President Jimmy Carter.) After reuniting in 1978, they gained a new generation of fans while performing and recording until 2009, when Travers passed away from cancer.

“Mary’s loss still comes in waves for me,” he says.

The Birds of Paradise, Stookey’s high school singing- group, perform in Pontiac. From left: Stookey, Peter Kass, Don Fraser, Howard Leavenworth, Jim Leach, Tom Halsted, and Ted Donay. // Photograph courtesy of Noel Stookey

On Stookey’s first solo album in 1971, he released “The Wedding Song (There Is Love),” a tune that he says was written by divine intervention when Yarrow asked him to bless his wedding. The record became an instant hit and is still commonly played at weddings.

“The lyrics just came pouring out, but I will only take credit for singing it,” says Stookey, who quickly established the Public Domain Foundation, where all the royalties from the song (now over $2 million) are assigned to support charitable work worldwide. In 2001, Stookey and his daughter Liz Stookey Sunde launched Music to Life, a nonprofit that supports musicians and projects committed to social change.

“I’ve learned that what you give, you get back so much more in personal satisfaction, and it’s all part of a lifestyle that I’m blessed to be part of,” says Stookey, who will be celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary this year with Betty, their three daughters, and their four grandchildren.

In 2022, Stookey released his latest studio album, the jazz-inspired Fazz: Now & Then, and he continues to do a few solo performances and a half-dozen concerts each year with Yarrow. He is also completing an autobiography that will cover his years in Birmingham and his remarkable life.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, Stookey pauses and with a chuckle says, “Occasionally and fondly.”

This story is from the August 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.