‘Wedding Song’ profits support community grants

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(Host) There was a time when folksingers had hit singles. In 1971, Noel Paul Stookey – the ‘Paul’ of Peter, Paul and Mary – released his first solo album. From it came a single called the “Wedding Song.” The record climbed into the top 25 in Billboard Magazine, and peaked at number three on the easy listening charts.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, after more than thirty years, the “Wedding Song” continues to have an impact.

(Zind) At the beginning of the 1970s, after a frenetic decade of recording and touring, Peter Paul and Mary decided to take a break. Noel Paul Stookey had undergone a spiritual conversion and moved his young family to the coast of Maine, when his former band mate Peter Yarrow asked him to write a song to bless his upcoming wedding.

(Stookey) “I felt a little like that guy in the Woody Allen movie who hands the teller a note that says, ‘I don’t have a gun but I know where I can get one.’ I didn’t feel that I was authorized to dispense blessings, but I knew where I could go to get one. So I retreated to the metaphorical prayer closet and within two hours the entire piece was written.”

(Zind) Written to celebrate the marriage of two friends, the Wedding Song clearly has a larger religious message. The refrain paraphrases Christ’s words in Matthew.

(Wedding Song) “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in his name, there is love, there is love.”

(Zind) The Wedding Song quickly became a favorite at wedding ceremonies. Other artists recorded it and it turned up in a couple of popular network television programs.

But if Stookey lives comfortably, it’s not because of money he’s made from the Wedding Song. Stookey says because of the way the song came to him, he didn’t feel right claiming authorship and collecting royalties.

(Stookey) “This was a prayed-for song and I just felt really stupid sticking my name under it.”

(Zind) Instead, Stookey put all of the song’s earnings into a foundation he established called the Public Domain Foundation. For years, he ran the foundation from his house in Maine, personally sifting through stacks of requests for money. He tended to favor causes that helped people achieve self-sufficiency, but there were many exceptions. He gave out grants as small as $50 and as large as $20,000 – for everything from building repairs to refugee assistance.

In all, the song has earned – and Stookey has given away – an estimated $2 million dollars. According to his daughter, Elizabeth Sunde, his methods were a little haphazard.

(Sunde) “He talked about going into the closet with a whole bunch of letters and just kind of feeling out where his heart was in terms of giving. And I said, ‘Well, that’s great, Dad, but let’s be a little more strategic.'”

(Zind) Six years ago, Stookey asked his daughter to help out. She now runs the foundation from her Wilder, Vermont home. In some ways, their different approaches typify what sets their two generations apart. His daughter, who makes her living working with non-profits, shares her father’s idealism – but tempers it with practicality.

She’s banking the royalty money to assure the foundation’s future and she plans to carefully screen future grant applications. She has also used the foundation to establish a contest designed to encourage other musicians to write songs with social or political messages.

Noel Stookey has played the Wedding Song live in his solo performances and with Peter, Paul and Mary since they reunited in 1978. And the song continues to turn up at weddings. Elizabeth Sunde says the people who got married to it in the 1970s are introducing the song to their children.

(Sunde) “I’m amazed at the e-mails that I get from sons and daughters or even grandkids saying, ‘I’ve heard that this is a great song, so how do I get a hold of it?”

(Zind) Sunde says it’s impossible to know at how many weddings her father’s song has been played. As for it playing at her own wedding:

(Sunde) “You know, it did not. I thought about it, but I wanted him to be a dad at my wedding and I think he wanted to be a dad, too.”

(Zind) Sunde says because the song hasn’t been available as a single for many years, the Public Domain Foundation will soon issue a commemorative version of the Wedding Song. The proceeds will help her continue the work her father started more than 30 years ago.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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