Buffy Ford-Stewart: John Stewart's Muse Finds a Road of Her Own
photo credit by Henry Diltz
Written by Terry Roland
Buffy Ford-Stewart: John Stewart's Muse Finds a Road of Her Own
Written by Terry Roland
He called her Angel Rain. For John Stewart, who died in San Diego in 2008, she was the muse for one of the great American singer-songwriters of the last 50 years. Without her, he may never have written the body of work ranging from "Daydream Believer," "Mother Country," and "California Bloodlines" to the latter day "Jasmine." She inspired John's lyrical, authentic, poetic, and visionary body of work. She was his all-time woman, the one who believed in him, the keeper of the flame lit by the treasury of songs authored by poet, artist, writer, dreamer, storyteller, and magic man. Her name is Buffy Ford-Stewart.
Today, she follows a road of her own; a highway she once traveled with John. But, she does not walk it alone. A legion of John Stewart fans or Bloodliners, her close friends and family walk with her. And, as always, John's spirit is just a dream away. During the days following his passing he came to her in a flock of birds . He still speaks through her in stories and in the very timbre of her voice. She is a cancer survivor who has walked the borderline between life and death. She is still a daydream believer, still a homecoming queen, still the girl swept away by the lonesome troubadour of her youth.
The story of John Stewart and Buffy Ford is a true American love story, full of twists, turns, ups, and downs, ending in such a triumph, their story is epic and one that deserves to be told. If John's vision was one of an often-overlooked America, this is the lady who embodies the compassion, insight, and love he created in song.
In the following interview she is an established artist in her own right and who, as the widow of a great artist, is on a mission to establish her husband's legacy. A mission of love, dreams, and a path strewn with magic from this woman John once called his "miracle girl."
San Diego Troubadour: Since John's been gone, what kind of projects have you been doing, Buffy?
Buffy Ford-Stewart: There's a lot that I have to work on. I recently found a tape of angel songs John and I did together that he wanted to release on Appleseed. I'm going to do something with it. It's in my back pocket. I'm also working on a documentary about his life. Have you seen that movie on Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man? I want to do something like that. It was so soulful. John deserves something like that. I wanted to do a concert at the San Francisco Symphony Hall to go along with the film. I had it ready to go with a lot of people lined up for it - you know, like Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, the We Five, Jimmy Webb. But the funding was pulled because the backers wanted a really big name...like an Elton John-size name. People are still really interested in doing it, but now, with the economy, it's been harder to get the funding. PBS is interested and there is interest from Jim Brown, the director of Pete Seeger: Power of Song. He's done a lot of films about music. He would be the best director. We just need to organize it and get the funding.
SDT: Any other special projects like this on the horizon?
BFS: One of the most exciting things happening is the Kingston Trio Grammy Hall of Fame exhibit. Leslie Reynolds [Nick's widow] and I have been working on it. There's a lot of people on board to help. We have a huge roster of wonderful fans and professional oral historians who are involved in doing the Kingston Trio research. It's being designed by Buster Cram. He directed the film Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. It's going to be a beautiful exhibit, which is meant to let younger people know who this amazing group was. It's going to be interesting and fun to hook the young people in. It will be a traveling exhibit and will show how the Kingston Trio, at one time, were the biggest group in the world. This is going to happen and it will be wonderful. And of course, we have Bobby [Shane]. I tell him, "don't you dare die!"
SDT: He's the "oldest living son?"
BFS: [laughs] Yes.
SDT: There's been a lot of talk among the fans about a release of the Malibu Memorial Concert from May 2008.
BFS: Yes. That's going to happen. It's being edited. PBS is also interested in this. There's also some interest in a CD release. That was such a beautiful day. Lindsey Buckingham made me realize, when he talked about his feelings that day, how living in L.A. takes you away from reality. That day, at the concert, no one's ego was involved. It was so real and so full of heart. It was all just for John. John's son, Michael, is a sound technician. He does the sound for the Grammys. So, we had the best sound, the best camera work. There's other things in the works. There's really so much to do. John and I were writing a book together. John knew he would be leaving, so I spent time with a recorder interviewing him. Usually at breakfast, I'd ask him questions and he'd tell me these amazing stories. I have about 12 hours on tape. I also want to do an art show of John's work. We just need the money to make these things happen.
SDT: And what about you? What's ahead in your life today?
BFS: Well, it's time to get out of my pajamas [laughs]. I'm working on a reality show about woman's health. Well, really it's about everyone's health. My friend, who is now known as Dr. Yoga-Nirmala Heriza, has written this book, which is a best seller on Amazon. The producer of the show is Jim Boyd and the hostess is the actress - Lindsey Crouse. I give the daily experience. In Dr. Yoga's book, I do the yoga poses and there's a poem I wrote, published in it. With all that I've been through, I can just about cover it all: colon cancer, the brain tumors, breast cancer.... We want it to be something that gives hope and faith to people. It will feature the best doctors, celebrity guests. It will address so much of what concerns people today in health with the economy, you know, like health insurance. I was dropped by my insurance.company when I had my second brain tumor. John had to sell so many of his special, beautiful instruments. We were able to make it because of so many wonderful friends and fans. But, the show will also address issues like heart disease, depression, stress, diabetes - all of it relevant to everyday people today. I was also featured in a pinup calender for breast cancer survivors. I was Ms. June. It shows you can survive breast cancer and feel good about yourself. The wonderful thing is that the photographer, Jeanette Zonier, has been through such trauma herself - she made all of us feel and look beautiful. It shows it's possible to survive breast cancer and really live life again. Jeanette uses the art for charity.
SDT: You did a tribute vocal album for Chet Baker called Buffy Sings Baker. Any plans on a follow-up?
BFS: Yes! I'd love to do a follow up to that. John and I decided it should be a capella. But, I'd like to go back and do another album with a piano and bass. I loved doing that!
SDT: How did you meet John?
BFS: After John left the trio, he was looking for a girl to sing with him. George Yanuk told him about me. I was doing a variety review show, a musical review. I was singing and dancing to about 500 people. While I was performing, I felt these eyes staring at me like a laser beam. I'd look out and see this guy locked into me. After the show I was told a member of the Kingston Trio wanted to meet me. He came back and I was amazed - it was the guy with the eyes! It was him. He asked me if I wanted to go out for coffee. He was with George. My heart just melted. But, I blew it. I told him I couldn't go. I couldn't believe that. Later, I was babysitting at some friends house out in a forest and I was swimming. I got a call from my Mom. You gotta imagine: my parents were bohemians and Mom sounded like Mae West. She said, "You better grab a towel, honey, because John Stewart from the Kingston Trio is coming to see you." I'll always remember how he looked when I first saw him. I still have the clothes he wore that day. He had a yellow polka-dot colored shirt, necktie, levis, cowboy boots, and a hat. He was tall, skinny and so handsome carrying his guitar. He said, "I'm looking for a girl to sing with. Maybe we could sing a song together." He played the song "Cody." He asked, "Do you want to try a harmony part?" That was the first song I ever sang with him. He said, "We have a good blend, don't we?" When we finished he wanted to start rehearsing. At the time, I was engaged to this guy. I found I wasn't in love with him. I was also being wooed by the Jefferson Airplane; I was also getting ready to go to New York City with this guy. I was going to Broadway. The San Francisco Chronicle did an article titled "Look Out Broadway, Here Comes Buffy." I had to tell the guy I was engaged to I wasn't going. It was sad, so hard. As soon as I met John, I turned a corner and everything changed.
SDT: Was this around the time you both began working on your duo album with him, Signals Through the Glass?
BFS: Yes. I would go everywhere with John. He said I was his muse. When we started rehearsing for the album, he would have me sit wherever he was writing - the bed, the kitchen. He'd write down phrases I'd say. He had a whole "Buffy book." That's how Signals Through the Glass was born. We'd watch slides of Andrew Wyeth paintings for hours. That was the inspiration. To catch this vison of America. Signals became this prism, like an Andrew Wyth painting. It was a portrait of America. But, nobody really got it. John was so in tune. He wasn't much of a reader, but for the historians, the people who write the books, they have to go somewhere to get the stories. John was one of those people who gave them the knowledge; [he was] a messenger. He was not always an easy person to live with. He was a genius, an artist, and a writer. He was very in tune with people and with the universe. He was always in tune with this radio station no one else was in tune with. And during our time together we just melted into life with each other. He loved me. I really miss him.
SDT: Can you tell me about John's last days in San Diego?
BFS: Yes, I'd love to. It was a beautiful week before John left - almost like it was choreographed. It was like he knew he would be leaving. He had a doctor's appointment to see an Alzheimer's specialist in La Jolla. I had this feeling inside that I had to go. I almost didn't go because he was going to be recording. But it felt really urgent to me. So, we went together. John's daughter, Amy, and his grandkids came. We saw everybody. His favorite hotel is the Del Coronado. You know, the hotel where Some Like It Hot was filmed. So, we stayed a week and visited with Nick Reynolds and his wife, Leslie. Nick was not well at the time. Leslie would pick us up every day and take us to see Nick. They spent the time listening to the new releases of Kingston Trio albums. Nick and John held hands as they listened. It was really lovely. We cooked and sang. There was a lot of family time. Nick's grandson, Liam, was there. We just spent a wonderful week together. The last time Leslie dropped us off there was this sweet hotel employee who was the elevator man named Andrew. He was a Trio fan. He was so excited that John was there - a member of the Kingston Trio! He told John he always wanted to have a CD by a member of the Kingston Trio. John told him, "Andrew, you're going to get your CD." Later, we went to the hotel shop on our way back to our room and John saw a nightgown he wanted me to have. He pounded on the window. The place had been closed for 45 minutes. The owner opened the shop and said it was okay. She said, "Yeah, I have a husband. I know how it is." He bought me this beautiful $400 nightgown. We went back to the hotel and brought Andrew his signed Trio CDs. John stayed for a few minutes and sang "Tom Dooley" with him. When we got back to the room, he started to feel bad. He said he had a headache. He was laying down and I called Jeremy [John's son] to come pick him up, because I didn't think we could get on the plane. He was on the bed. He couldn't speak anymore. I gave him an aspirin. I called 911. He was unconscious. It felt like there was 50 paramedics in the room. At the hospital, after the [x-ray], the doctor said that surgery could be done, but John would be like a vegetable. I said no. I didn't want that. We waited until after the family came. It was just like a full circle. He saw his children, his grandchildren, his close friends, the band came, and we all held hands and sang to him. We sang him off.
SDT: What did you sing for him?
BFS: Somewhere over the rainbow... it's a wonderful life..... friends. He died in San Diego in the same hospital where he was born. We stayed with him until he left. He wasn't alone. He came to us as a bird the next day on his daughters birthday. At the bakery...John appeared as a bird. He always loved birds. It was Amy's birthday and I was getting a birthday cake for her. This bird flew into the bakery and circled just over our heads.
SDT: That's beautiful. What was your impression of the Kingston Trio?
BFS: I was not a Trio fan in the beginning. I was into Judy Garland and stage musicals. So, I had to tone down my voice when I sang with John. But then I began to really hear the Trio and today I'm a total fan. Three of the most beautiful voices ever recorded. You just cannot duplicate what these guys had. You can't really get three guys together to sing and come up with such a unique sound.
SDT: Do you have any Trio stories?
BFS: Oh yeah, a lot. On one engagement, the last night at the Hungry Eye in San Francisco, Bobby [Shane] went out, right before the encore, to sing "Scotch and Soda." At that point John was getting ready to leave the Trio. While Bobby was on stage, John looked over at Nick and said, "Hey, let's leave Bobby on stage and drive to Big Sur!" That's what they did. They just left Bob out there alone on the stage.
SDT: It seems like, in 1987, John came out with this burst of inspired energy that became Punch the Big Guy. How did that happen?
BFS: Because of the influences on our son, Luke, around Malibu, we decided to move into an ashram with Sri Swami Satchidananda. He was the Woodstock guru. In so many ways, he saved our lives. John softened during that time. He learned to meditate. It taught him about tolerance. John could be really sarcastic. He could make you feel like you had an IQ of two. But, he changed during this time. This was when so many of the songs from Punch the Big Guy were written. You know, like "Botswana." The Swami has this book John used to read everyday called The Golden Present. Sometimes he'd read a passage and then a song would come out. That's how he wrote "Star in the Black Sky Shining" from Havana.
SDT: Can you describe John's approach to songwriting?
BFS: He was always writing. He carried a pen and a little notebook. He'd write down phrases during the day. He always had his guitar by the bed. He would wake up in the middle of the night and start playing and writing. He used to write while he watched TV. He would get an idea from something he'd see. He wrote "Armstrong" on the day of the moon landing as he watched it happening. For John, songwriting was about being in tune. It was very much hearing the muse. He loved to write on the road. He'd get in the car, turn on a tape recording, and start writing. I always have the feeling he saved so many lives. He gave us a reason to rise. It's like when you look really close at a painting. John's work was like that. He loved people. He cared deeply about people through his songs. He sang about them. He sang to them. One of the things that I talked with Lindsey Buckingham about is that John's an artist whose work has yet to be discovered. Now that he's gone, he'll be recognized.
SDT: How would you describe John Stewart's legacy?
BFS: I think that John was the most amazing poet of our time! He had such a unique way of seeing the world and understanding the hearts of the downtrodden and expressing through lyric and music their plight. He was a universal poet and man. He was like an archangel who came with a gift to give to this world.
Originally published in The San Diego Troubadour