John Stewart: A Birthday Tribute
AMERICANA MUSIC HAS YET TO DISCOVER SINGER-SONGWRITER GREAT JOHN STEWART ON HIS 71ST BIRTHDAY
Former member of The Kingston Trio, John Stewart, who died in 2008, best known for penning “Daydream Believer,” and his 70’s hit “Gold,” was an influential and important solo artist in his own right.
He sang the songs of America. They were visions that transcended patriotic musings or romantic sentimentalities. He was the lonesome picker who reached out on starless nights for the flame of the song to bring some light to the American highway he traveled. For decades he walked the balance between pop success and artistic freedom. His creative soul always emerged redeemed. It was a gift for us all that he never gained the commercial success of contemporaries like John Denver. While Denver could give us brief glimpses of “Rocky Mountain High”, John Stewart took us deep into the heartland of the voiceless American landscape into its dark canyons of wounded saints and wingless angels.
In his career he would play before thousands, be heard by millions and in his final days, take his songs and stories to small, intimate taverns where his flame could still be felt. He was like no other American artist of his day. In the future, when we speak of John Stewart, he won’t belong with Dylan or Cohen even though they were his peers. His work will belong alongside Wyeth, Ansel Adams and John Steinbeck. In 1975 when Dylan decided that he was going to write an album of songs that would be inspired by visual art (Blood on the Tracks), John had already accomplished this on his classic 1968, Signals Through the Glass, recorded with his wife, Buffy Ford. In the 80’s when Springsteen decided to write an album of American stories of faith, disillusion, struggle and redemption, Nebraska, Stewart had been there in 1969 and 1970 with the brilliant California Bloodlines and Willard.
These first three albums (Signals, Bloodlines and Willard) formed the foundation of what was to come. At the time Dylan and The Band were in Woodstock seemingly channeling songs from the previous century, John was doing the same on the west coast with these three seminal and landmark albums. If there was a national muse on the prowl in the late 60’s trying to convey what American music was all about, she had John’s ear and his soul. Song like “Mother Country” with its story of E.A. Stuart and his horse, Sweetheart On Parade, the wide-eyed beauty of “Omaha Rainbow” and the haunting texture of “Pirates of Stone County Road”, painted song-portraits for the listener to experience America in a way not heard before or since.
His 1968 Capitol debut wife, Buffy Ford, Signals through the Glass, is an overlooked classic of Americana music. At the time John was inspired to try to capture something in music he had experienced from heartland artists like Andrew Wyeth. According to, Buffy, they sat for hours looking at slides of Wyeth’s art as he created the songs. The result is a collection of songs that give an original vision of the American experience, not as an ideal, but as a passionate reality. The production is minimal and John and Buffy’s voices provide a blend which can only be described as haunting. Particularly stirring is the song, “Cody,” which brings to life a character worthy of a Steinbeck story. The opening track, “Lincoln’s Train” tragically reflects the feelings both Buffy and John must have lived through after they witnessed the fall of Robert Kennedy in 1968 during what John came to call, “The Last Campaign.”
In 1969, Capital released John Stewart’s first solo albums which became an extension of Signals. California Bloodlines is now considered a country-rock classic. With a production by Nick Venet, the album raised the standard on songwriting by bringing alive another era of story and song. Songs like “Mother Country,” “Razorback Woman, ““Pirates of Stone County Road” and “Omaha Rainbow” seemed more like they had been created in the aftermath of the Civil War or during the Great Depression. On California Bloodlines Stewart was like our window into an America that was all but forgotten during the era of Vietnam and Woodstock.
His subsequent release, Willard, furthered the themes and approach of Bloodlines, but focused even closer on the candle-lit stories of the American soul. I can think of no release from an American songwriter who had done this as successfully until Springsteen released Nebraska. Producer, Nick Venet, was replaced by Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon fame, who came with a stable of up and coming musicians and singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Carole King, Doug Kershaw, Chris Darrow, and Russ Kunkl. Songs like “Hero from the War”, “Oldest Living Son”, and “Great White Cathedrals” gave breadth and depth in song lacking in the later works of Springsteen and Mellencamp.
The years that followed saw John, like any great artist, go through periods of rapid success, then just as fast a decline in commercial fortune. But, this only added to the quality of his work with albums like 1987’s Punch The Big Guy and the wealth of spoken word and homegrown experimental recordings as well as ever deepening songs that resulted from what I’ve come to call his chamber recordings…intimate, reflective, introspective and deeply poetic. If California Bloodlines was drawn on a great canvas, his latter day recordings were like opening his most intimate sketch books with consistent flashes of brilliance from an artist whose imagination was without borders.
In his later years, his instrument began to show age. His voice grew rough and worn. He fought life’s battles long and hard but always returned with a story and a song.
Somehow, these days, when I go to the stages he frequented over the years, in Arizona and L.A., no matter who is performing, it seems he’s still there. The stages seem smaller with his absence, but still somehow holy. It’s like he made the stage, in some shamanistic way, sacred for the sake of the song. Over the years I saw him in auditoriums, county fairs, coffee houses, taverns and clubs. Wherever he played, the songs came up like the appearance of a wild mustang.
In his final days John struggled with his health as he continued to record and tour. The last time I saw him perform was in the basement of a small guitar store, The Fret House, in Covina, California in the fall of 2007, with an audience of 100 in attendance. As he stood on the stage, he reminded me so much of the story he told of the old horse owner, E.A. Stuart, who though going blind, rode his proud horse, the Old Campaigner around a crowded ring one last time. Ironically, this song, “Mother Country” was the first I heard him perform live and the last. In the last few months of his life, he unknowingly came to embody his own song and lived out his own version of E.A. Stuart, continuing to pursue the dream of the song before a crowd of faithful witnesses. And, as he sang in that song, “Oh Mother Country I do love you,” with clear-eyed sincerity on this, his 71st birthday, I can openly say to John Stewart, who personified not only the American tradition of the folk song, but the perseverance and courage of the American soul, “I do love you.” Happy Birthday, John.