When Noel moved to Greenwich Village after college, he had little awareness of injustice, but folk music and its ethic helped him see it more clearly. As Peter, Paul, and Mary became known for social justice positions that sought to affect public policy, he wondered more and more about the spiritual motivation behind the political messages in folk music.
What was the spiritual core that led folk singers like Pete Seeger and Odetta to amplify social concern through their songs and sometimes risk their lives to raise awareness of injustice and oppression? That question was an incentive for the spiritual quest that eventually grounded Noel’s own commitment to justice, which quite naturally found its expression in song.
Oftentimes the first step toward seeing injustice is being aware of the connectedness of all life. Noel’s song “Facets” proclaims that “our lives are connected,” whether for good or ill. When we begin to recognize some of the myriad ways we can do harm and how the effects can be seen in the suffering of people well beyond our local sphere, that learning can awaken us not only to stop the harm but also help us take more responsibility for the common good.
Rarely political in the overt sense, many of Noel's songs nonetheless deal with issues that demand a level of activism that reaches beyond one’s immediate neighborhood concerns. Small acts of kindness extended locally often become the inspiration for national and global good works.
People involved in justice work can easily become cynical when their gains have been reversed or when they see no gains at all. What has given Noel hope over time—whether in the civil rights movement, in El Salvador, or in the farm workers movement—is that he has seen justice work as a creative pursuit. He says, “It’s like any other project that creates something out of nothing. Nothing can be the absence of justice.” That approach is important given the divisive times in which we live and the problems we face. To confront injustice by railing against it has a place, but to look at the challenge as a creative project is a more hopeful approach that can reach across divides.
Noel’s justice work is deeply intertwined with his music. Perhaps the best musical examples of that connection are contained on the 2021 release JUST CAUSES. Songs such as “I Will Stand'' and “Impeachable” are specific in their focus while others like “Jean Claude” and “Tom Quick” rely more on their historical significance to draw attention to the continuing inequities around us. Some express a deep personal loss, as in the plaintive “Song For Megumi,” the 13-year-old Japanese girl abducted by North Koreans in 1997, while others, like “Nukes R Nuts,” warn of the possible consequences resulting from the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Noel's faith motivates his social concern and his music expresses it. While each of the fifteen songs contained in the JUST CAUSES collection are reflective of one specific social concern or another, they are all connected at their core to a compassionate understanding of the need for equity among all peoples. Much of his multi-cultural awareness of that need stems from his collaboration with and performances in the One Light, Many Candles multi-faith program created by his wife Betty. This program draws on a diversity of religious and spiritual traditions in their common call to love one another. Through it, Betty and Noel have worked together to create vision and hope for a more just and loving world.