Roots and branches: Paul Stookey
Noel Paul Stookey – best known as the Paul of the long-running folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary – expects to throw a curve at the John Denver faithful this weekend. Stookey, billed as the special guest at the seventh annual Musical Tribute to John Denver concerts tomorrow at the Wheeler Opera House, plans to play a version of “Sunshine on My Shoulders” – co-written by Denver and Peter, Paul & Mary bassist Dick Kniss – that is quite different from Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1969 hit.”I saw it was only four chords. I took it as kind of a challenge to reinvent the harmonic structure,” said Stookey, who will be making his first-ever visit to Aspen with the two concerts, set for 6 and 9 p.m. (Stookey is not scheduled to appear at tonight’s 7 p.m. concert.) “It’ll be fun to see the dyed-in-the-wool Denverites, who want an exact repetition of John’s work, as I play some transmogrified chords.”The version may confound the crowd. But to Stookey, it is an appropriate tribute to Denver. While the idea of harmonic structures may sound at odds with the simple, straight-up folk music that Denver played, Stookey remembers Denver as far more musically sophisticated than his image.
“John and I had this equal delight in the musicality of a lot of pieces,” said the 67-year-old Stookey, “whether playing major seventh chords on ‘Jet Plane,’ or hanging out in a studio for three hours to do what the Beatles did so well – come up with two chords, make up a lyric and then wing it.”Stookey recognized Denver’s gifts from the first time he met the late singer – which Stookey guesses was in 1961 or ’62, in the 34th Street New York office of Milt Okun, the record producer and musical director who worked with both Peter, Paul & Mary and Denver.”You could tell he was just busting at the seams,” said Stookey. “He had just done his first solo album. You knew he was his own guy. He gave you a sense of his melodic ear. He could pull something from the chasm of pop and put it into folk accessibility.”Stookey likened the New York folk scene that launched Peter, Paul & Mary and Denver – and Bob Dylan – to a school that they all took seriously. “Greenwich Village University, with each of the coffeehouses as a classroom,” said Stookey, who started as a master of ceremonies before trying out his own performing skills. “Whether you were [Tom] Paxton, Dylan, Stookey or Lou Gossett, you couldn’t wait to get to another classroom and see what was happening. There was a joie de vivre that you couldn’t get in a big city; you needed a small town.”
Stookey remembers a lot of different sides of Denver that didn’t quite fit with the common perception of the earnest folkie. On a visit to Stookey’s house in New York’s Westchester County, Denver launched off a diving board that nobody else used. As he hit the board, Denver called out, “Wanna see a triple?” The “triple” was far from pretty, but it revealed something about the singer. “That’s the way he put himself into his life and his music,” said Stookey.Another Stookey favorite was Denver’s concert at Carnegie Hall. Rather than play it straight and safe on the country’s most prestigious stage, said Stookey, “John pulled out three juggling balls and said, ‘Hey look mom, I’m juggling balls at Carnegie Hall.'”And when Denver was in a decline in his popularity, following the breakup of his first marriage, to Annie Denver, Stookey again saw a facet of Denver that was at odds with the conventional wisdom. It was at a concert in Lake Tahoe, and Denver played a song, “Matthew,” that Stookey had never thought much of. But the performance made Stookey take notice. “The contrasting of farm lands of the Midwest with pictures of the Russian farmland was told in a slide show behind the stage,” recalled Stookey. “That was such a strong statement.”That was the last contact Stookey had with Denver. Stookey watched sadly as Denver’s career and life seemed to slide downhill in his final years. But Stookey also believed that Denver was due to rebound at the time of his death.
“John had an integrity,” said Stookey who has daughters named Anna and Kate, which he assumes was the impetus for Denver naming his own daughter Anna Kate. “That’s the biggest regret of John’s passing. Sure, he’d had bouts with drinking and depression. You could almost follow it in his music – this kind of rock ‘n’ roll revue album he did, which was not what you wanted. Which was not what he wanted.”I think he was on the mend when the plane went down. I was looking forward to getting together with him again. If he were alive today, we’d be playing gold together. We’d be hanging out at festivals.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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