Thursday, January 14, 2010

Remembering John Stewart - "July, You're A Woman"

As we approach the second anniversary of the passing of John Stewart (1939-2008), it's a bittersweet pleasure to reflect back on all that his artistry has contributed to the musical lives of folk music devotees of many stripes. Stewart was one of the originators of the singer-songwriter movement (a "folk patriarch," said the Los Angeles Times obituary), a country folkie before Poco or the Eagles, an occasional rocker, and a poet with his lyrics first and last. He breathed new life into the Kingston Trio when it was on the verge of commercial extinction with the departure of Dave Guard, helped to alter its direction, and in his own modest words "kept a good thing going." His songwriting for the Trio supplied it with its own original material and helped to launch him into his own distinguished if under-appreciated forty year solo career.

At the Malibu memorial in May of 2008, it occurred to me that because of "Molly Dee" to start with, Stewart had been a presence in my own life for just under fifty years.

Folk fans in general seemed to turn Stewart on and off, giving sales boosts and attention to some of his albums (usually after a song on one of them had become a hit for someone else) but not to others. Among Kingston Trio fans, while there are many, many who followed all or part of Stewart's solo work, there is also a significant segment that either didn't pay attention to what JS did after 1967 or (and this was one of Stewart's peeves) didn't like it because he didn't sound like he did in the KT. Shades of Rick Nelson's song "Garden Party."

While as far as I know John Stewart always treasured his time with the KT, he was on stage at least through his long performing career at times ambivalent about it. In the early years of the 70s especially, I'd see him at venues around LA where a noticeable segment of the audience who had shown up to see a former Kingston stalwart seemed perplexed or annoyed at the electric and countrified sound he was producing at the time. JS would return the favor, at times with asperity, if someone asked him to do "The Reverend Mr. Black" or "New Frontier." "I don't do Kingston Trio songs," I heard him reply, curtly, on several occasions. An equal number of times he would laugh the suggestion off with one of his trademark quips, smiling all the while.

But he wouldn't do the song.

In the mid-80s when he reunited with Nick Reynolds for The Revenge of the Budgie album (which included only one former Trio song), there seemed to me to be the beginning of a shift that included a full solo album of songs he'd written for the Trio (The Trio Years), a brand new folk group in the 90s (Darwin's Army), the re-emergence of his banjo playing (including on the Pete Seeger tribute album) - and the frequent inclusion in his performing repertoire of re-imagined versions of songs he'd done with the KT like "Chilly Winds" and "Run The Ridges," to name two of many.

And the eight fantasy camps he ran from 2000 to 2007 seemed to unify it all, as Stewart would perform his own current songs while at the same time celebrating the life and times of the Kingston Trio.

So it's fitting, I think, that our song for this week should be one of Stewart's best and most popular numbers from the landmark California Bloodlines album - one that within a year of its release Bob Shane's New Kingston Trio had recorded - "July, You're A Woman." Stewart performed the song a number of different ways through all those decades - but never better than on the Bloodlines recording here (and since in 2013 Capitol Records relaxed its block on some YouTube postings, in this delightful video version I first posted in 2010 by "WildWestRosie," entirely in keeping with the spirit of the song):

I have to confess getting a bit of a chill and a tear when I listen to this - it was the first solo JS number I heard, in August of 1969. It grabbed me right away and hasn't let me go since.

It must have grabbed Bob Shane, too - the New Kingston Trio performed the song, here in a track I cribbed from Rick Daly's FolkUSA, a concert bootleg from about 1970. Even through the fuzzy audio, the power of Shane's vocal shines through. It's got a fine banjo part by Jim Connor and good harmony as well:

Another bootleg of the NKT, this one much clearer, from 1971 and posted to YouTube in 2012 by my friend Max Schwartz:

And now, for the peculiar, the odd, and the seldom heard - the Pat Boone version. Uber-Christian Boone felt the need to sanitize the PG lyrics, to a slightly strange effect:

(Well, the CopyVio folks got Pat, at least for the moment. If he comes back, we'll re-post.)

December 2011 - Pat's back! - at least temporarily:

June 2013 - Pat's Gone Again!

April 2015 - Pat's Back Again! For How Long???

To be fair to Boone, though, it has to be said that he had always been a Kingston Trio fan, had featured the group on his show when he was at the height of his popularity, and had appeared with them at a landmark concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April of 1961, shortly before original KT member Dave Guard left - replaced by John Stewart.

Probably the best-known version of the song after Stewart's own is that of alternate-country rock band Mickey and the Motor Cars. I find a weird charm in this - go figure:

Not surprisingly, the easy pace of the song converts easily to bluegrass, and two of the best versions out there are from bluegrass/country groups. First - I just came across this fine version from the great Australian cowboy singer Reg Lindsay, who had an enormous effect on popularizing American folk and country songs Down Under:

I really like this version from a concert by Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen:

And finally, a very young country-superstar-to-be Vince Gill sings the lead in this mid-70s version by Mountain Smoke, the group that gave Gill his start in the music business:

There is so much more to be said about the legacy of John Stewart - I'll be posting some more links and videos over the next few days. For tonight, I'd like to give the last words of this piece to an anonymous YouTuber who on the day Stewart died posted a comment under a video of John Stewart's song "New Frontier" -

"Faith, pride and optimism. John you will always come back to us when we need you."

Amen to that.


whoinsamhill said...

Thank you!

whoinsamhill said...

In September, 1969 I met a "head" on the Navarro River in Mendocino and took a liking to this young philosopher/MD to be. Mark told me he liked the song July You're A Woman, which I subsequently heard on the radio once or twice. I recently found Mark's obituary: 1995 hit by a car while changing a tire. He had been director of geriatrics at a Pennsylvania hospital at the time. Big loss. So I searched for July You're A Woman.


rivergeek said...

Love this song! My favorite cover is by Gamble Rogers, Southern story teller and folk singer (1937-1991). His albums are all good and about the only source for them now is at:

Robin Miller said...

And now, of course, the record company has pulled the "Bloodlines" version of "July" from YouTube. The covers are okay, but I'm about as good as most of them myself.

It seems that the biggest online compendium of John Stewart songs is at MySpace:

Ah, well. I heard him live many times, here and there in California, in large halls and small clubs. Always one of my favorite performers. And no, I never asked him to sing a KT song. I knew about all of them from my mother. Still kind of know most of them.... guess now they're so old I can sing them in public again, eh?

Not as good as John, but hey- not many are or were.

Jim Moran said...

Ouch! Thanks for the heads-up, Robin. I can't replace that video yet - though it may be possible to do so. As you know, the original was on Capitol, which has been giving me some problems about some of my KT uploads as well. But JS had a couple of live versions out there as well - I think on Phoenix Concerts on RCA, which has been less aggressive about blocking audio. A shame, because that video was as cute a personal home project as you'll see. I saw JS many times and knew him a bit - performed with him at his Fantasy Camp and so on. I love his solo stuff but remain a major KT fan, albeit rather more of the original Trio before he joined. I'll see if I can get a real JS video up again soon.



Jim Moran said...

Well, we have the John Stewart original track back, at least for the moment. The version above is posted to Vimeo from Spain, and for whatever reason Capitol/EMI has not blocked it in the U.S. as of now. Let's enjoy it while we can

mike m said...

Hey Jim,

Like you, I first heard July You're A Woman as an 18 yr. old in 1969. The song has stayed with me for almost 50 years and every time I listen to it or play it myself I am instantly transported back in time. It was definitely unique for its period and has remained timeless as a result. I came across your page while trying to track down some JS songbooks, especially one that has the complete notations for July. Stewart has a distinct sound emanating, I think, from his cadence and phrasing. And the only way to do July You're A woman justice is to replicate that phrasing. As much as I like the KT and Bob Shane his cover of July was horrendous, exactly for the lack of nuance and phrasing that JS brought to the song. The New Kingston Trio rushed right through the song as if they were trying to catch the last train out of town and as a result they completely missed the the passion and longing that was intended by JS. It was almost like OH Miss Mary on steroids without the melody.

Speaking of songbooks, are there any published songbooks by JS?

Mike M