A couple of weeks back, New York magazine inquired, “Is Political Art the Only Art That Matters Now?” It’s a question artists across the U.S. have been asking themselves over the past few months. Shaken and, in many cases, appalled by the Trump administration’s attitudes and actions, many have been pondering whether and how they can use their talents to promote a vision of a more just and inclusive America.
For Noel Paul Stookey, who was one-third of the legendary folk music trio Peter, Paul & Mary, the answer is obvious. Throughout the turbulent 1960s, his group and many like-minded others wrote and performed the protest songs that became the soundtrack of a movement. The best of these — such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — have become classics. “Songs of solidarity, songs of faith, and songs of equity have always served as a stirring call to community,” he noted. And he believes they can, and should, again. To that end, Stookey is curating and hosting Music for Changing Times, a weeklong festival that kicks off Monday, May 8, at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.
“It has always been our intent as a theater company to reflect and respond to the times that we’re living in,” said Producing Artistic Director Karyl Lynn Burns. “And we are living in difficult times. As an individual, I find sometimes I feel powerless to make change. But I think music gives us hope and inspiration. And there’s a particular kind of anthemic music that, throughout history, has empowered us to take positive action.”
The Rubicon festival will both celebrate the last great era of such music and introduce audiences to new songwriters who are emulating those politically aware troubadours of the past. It begins with three performances of a new “musical play in progress” that is a sequel of sorts to Lonesome Traveler, a celebration of American folk music Rubicon created, premiered, and ultimately took to New York. The new show focuses on the folk-rock movement and features music by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and many others.
The schedule also includes a number of concerts, including one Friday, May 12, at 7 p.m., featuring Stookey and his longtime singing partner Peter Yarrow; a concert featuring 10 winners of a young songwriters’ competition; and a master class in which these up-and-coming balladeers will be paired with veterans who “write songs that reflect current events and inspire change.”
“I disagree with the assumption that current times have not inspired much in the way of protest music,” Stookey said. “Music of concern is being continually generated by many young writers.” Inspired by memories of his performance with Peter and Mary at Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington, he insisted music can “articulate the issues of the times and respond to them compassionately. Songs of faith, and songs of equity, have always served as stirring call to community.”
On one level, the festival seems far afield from the Rubicon’s core mission of presenting new and classic plays. But Burns sees it as “a natural outgrowth of our underlying vision for the theater,” she said. “We hope it is a broadening of our approach … and a deepening and a diversifying.”
4∙1∙1 Music for Changing Times runs Monday, May 8-Saturday, May 13, at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St.). For the complete schedule, see tinyurl.com/RubiconMusicFest.