WASHINGTON -- In 25 years of Peter, Paul and Mary, their audiences have gone from beatnik protesters to mainstream viewers of PBS' 'Boston Pops'.
Noel, as Noel Paul Stookey prefers to be called, has done his own share of transforming, from 'dope madness to Christian activist.'
'I was an early Jesus freak -- I didn't mind the term,' says Stookey, who was converted via a fan after a 1968 concert. 'Freak to me meant acting closer to the bone.'
Tall and muscled, his chestnut hair is still long, but the hairline has inched to mid-crown and furrows line his forehead. His droopy moustache is now salted with gray.
The uniform remains the same -- T-shirt and faded jeans. His saucer aquamarine eyes that dance when he laughs haven't changed a bit.
Today when Stookey, who turns 49 this month, is off-duty from the trio's 50 concerts a year, he lives in a converted henhouse in South Blue Hill, Maine and plays with Bodyworks, a folk gospel band.
The group was formerly Starsong, 'the best bar band in Maine', says Stookey, who hooked up with them in 1979.
He was recently in Washington with Bodyworks to perform a benefit concert for Samaritan Inns, a pioneering mission that integrates the homeless back into the community.
His focus on God started at a 1968 concert in Abilene, Texas, when a young male fan edged his way past guards and confronted him backstage.
'He said 'I want to talk to you about God',' remembers Stookey. 'And over a period of the next four or five hours, while I'm signing autographs, while I'm riding in the back of a pick-up truck to the motel, while I'm trying to dodge the issue, he did.'
Then the teenager offered a long prayerto God, signing off with: 'I think Noel wants to talk to you.' A nervous Stookey took over.
'Now I was either going to say, 'this is horse----, or I was going to take it seriously. And I took it seriously and just started to cry. It was like being washed.
'I said 'sorry, man. I'm sorry for ignoring you for so many years in my life.'
He preceded his wife, Mary Elizabeth, in a turn toward Christianity, but 'now it's scary. She's getting stronger than I am,' he says with a booming laugh.
They are parents to three daughters, 15-year-old twins and a 21-year-old.
Veering onto a Jesus streak splintered Peter, Paul and Mary fans, as well as the band. Peter Yarrow is Jewish, and Mary Travers considers herself a 'lapsed Baptist' according to Stookey.
'The fact that I should come out and talk about my conversion seemed perfectly normal to me,' he says. 'I did not understand that to specify one's faith fractionalizes your audience. In retrospect, what I'm most grieved about is that I was so ignorant of the Jewish audience.'
The group disbanded between 1970 and 1977 to pursue independent projects.
Stookey was born in Dorsey, Md., and later moved to East Lansing, Mich. It wasn't until he became a household name that his search for God accelerated.
'The enormous success of the group caused me to question what is life and where is my integrity. For instance, nobody knew my first name was Noel.
'I was thinking 'what is life, is life supposed to be famous? If that's it, then this is it, I'm already here. Or is there more to it? And if there is more to it, who says so?''
Bob Dylan, who has always woven spirituality through his songs, was an early influence, says Stookey. Dylan, who is Jewish, embraced Christianity in the '70s as reflected in his music of that era.
'Dylan's music was inspired by God even before Dylan acknowledged it,' Stookey says of the man he calls 'Bobby'.
'I went to him in my dope madness in the mid-'60s and he said 'have you read the Bible'. I said 'no'. He said 'you should do that.'
'The second thing he said which seemed very strange is, 'you're from Michigan aren't you?. When you have a concert there, you should go back early and walk around and see what's real.'
'And when I went back, I found that the only things that had stood the test of time were the experiences that were of God -- relationships, love.'
Although Yarrow and Travers continue to rally for political causes, the latest being Nicaragua, Stookey prefers to do his rabblerousing within the church.
'I certainly would be construed as an activist in the Christian community, but it is out of the Christian compassion that my politics come. Not from a tradition of causes which I think is more comfortable for Peter and Mary.
'They're city kids. Their parents were always in some kind of actitivity. Mary was on marches since she was 6 or 7.'
But, this time around individual crusades won't divide Peter, Paul and Mary, a group that is on a 'perpetual reunion tour', he says.
'We probably will continue to work together for the rest of our lives.'