Friday, January 14, 2011

Remembering John Stewart #2 - "Chilly Winds"

For a look back at last year's article on "July, You're A Woman," click HERE.
John Stewart (Sept. 5, 1939 - Jan. 19, 2008) spent more than fifty years writing his own epitaph, and he did so in about 600 different segments - because what remains of him as legacy nearly three years after his death are the songs that he wrote and his performances of them, both in recordings and in the living memories of those of us lucky enough to have seen him with the Kingston Trio, or solo, or luckiest of all, both.

Stewart was possessed of an idiosyncratic creativity throughout his life, a creativity that manifested itself in sometimes surprising and new ways. He discovered at some point in middle age that he had real talent in drawing and painting, and he developed that talent with the same kind of unique vision that characterizes his songs. He was a gifted mimic and could imitate voices with uncanny accuracy when he was telling tales in concerts or conversations. He loved computers and technology and what you could do with them fully as much as he loved a well-made acoustic guitar.

Yet it is as a songwriter with a unique vision of America and the individual's place in it that is probably his single most important legacy. Some of his songs are still heard widely, even by people who have no idea that Stewart wrote them. "Daydream Believer" possesses an independent life of its own - it keeps coming back in different forms, year after year, most recently in TV commercials for eBay and on the recent CD by Susan Boyle. Work out in a gym often enough and long enough and you will eventually hear his top 5 hit "Gold" piped in over the muzak at some point or other. "Survivors" and "Mother Country" seem to pop up from time to time on satellite radio and elsewhere. Performers like Dave Alvin and Bill Staines continue to perform his compositions.

More importantly to his fans - there are forty plus CDs/albums with several hundred originals on them, a veritable treasure trove of gems undiscovered by the public at large but regarded as precious by those who know them. I recall a post on a message board recently that wondered at the fulsome praise heaped on Stewart's songwriting - the poster remarked that he thought that Stewart may have written about ten or fifteen good songs and that was about it.

Well, you can't disagree with a personal opinion, so I won't. But I will relate an interesting little tidbit. The 17th century English poet John Donne - he of "for whom the bell tolls" and "no man is an island" and "death, be not proud" fame - was almost completely forgotten for three hundred years after his death because his style fell out of fashion and because his work was more subtle and intricate than most poetry fans could apprehend. Then in the 1920s, T.S. Eliot used his considerable weight as a poet and a critic to rescue Donne in a single essay in which Eliot clearly and simply elucidated those qualities of Donne that we so easily recognize today - and today, Donne is universally recognized as the poet of his age, behind only Shakespeare himself and John Milton.

So may it be with Stewart, though I hope it doesn't take three hundred years. But as a lifelong aficionado of both poetry and songwriting, I would assert that those 40 CDs include dozens, perhaps scores, of absolute treasures of songwriting - the very genesis of Americana music and the singer/songwriter movement, and the real successor to Woody Guthrie's vision of America. John Stewart was writing songs about common people that were recorded and selling hundreds of thousands of copies while Bob Dylan was still in high school dreaming of being Little Richard.

Even given the quality of his work with his first professional group, the Cumberland Three, it is with his ascension into the Kingston Trio fifty years ago in 1961 - at a point when the KT was the top pop music group in the country - that Stewart's real impact begins, and immediately so with a number of fine arrangements and compositions on the first Trio album on which he appeared that year, Close Up. But it was on the next album, I believe, where Stewart's songwriting began to take its ultimate Americana direction with one of his greatest songwriting efforts (with John Phillips, later of The Mamas and the Papas), "Chilly Winds."

Stewart had a close association with Phillips, even being one of a select few musicians invited to perform at Phillips' 2001 memorial service - and of course he sang "Chilly Winds." There were rumors, never either confirmed nor completely squelched, that Stewart considered leaving the KT to join Phillips in "The New Journeymen," the second iteration of Phillips' own folk trio, perhaps because of Stewart's status as an employee of the Kingston Trio rather than as a partner in it and because of slights from manager Frank Werber when Stewart made suggestions about song selection and arrangements.

Part of the story of the composition of "Chilly Winds" is fairly well-known. Stewart and Phillips supposedly visited KT member Nick Reynolds at his houseboat in Sausalito, CA on San Francisco Bay and took a dinghy out onto the bay for a couple of hours. They came back with the first draft of "Chilly Winds" that according to Stewart had scores of verses that they narrowed down to five. Stewart and Phillips played it for Reynolds, who was as immediately enthusiastic about the number as was third KTer Bob Shane, and the group recorded the song at their UCLA concert in late '61 and included the tune on the live album that grew out of the show. It became a Trio staple and in one informal poll in the 1990s was voted the #1 all-time favorite Kingston song by several hundred participating fans.

The other part of the story, the one less familiar, is where Stewart and Phillips got the ideas for the song. In the best folk tradition, the Stewart/Phillips composition could fairly be described as "assembled" from earlier folk songs as much as it was "written." The very title and the signature line - "I'm goin' where those chilly winds don't blow" - originated in a 19th century Appalachian clawhammer banjo number that later morphed into both a blues number and then a jazz standard. One whole verse - the favorite one of many fans, including me, about the "headlight on a westbound train" - was lifted in toto from a 1930s Jimmy Noone recording called "Blues Jumped The Rabbit" - and from several old published versions of "I Know You Rider." (I'm guessing that some of the lifting was courtesy of Phillips, who seemed to have a fair knowledge of country blues and mountain music.) And the "Leavin' in the springtime/Won't be back til fall" trope also appears in a number of older folk songs.

No matter, though - that's how folk music works, and "Chilly Winds" stands on its own as one of the best of the art-folk original songs of the revival period. Its roots in older songs are actually one of its strengths, and few if any other songs of the era articulate the melancholy of a dying romance so well. Stewart recorded the song at least a dozen times in different arrangements, though likely the two most familiar are combined in this video medley created by Tom Salter of Stonewall Studios in Niagara, ONT. The first half of the video is the original Kingston Trio College Concert recording (the concert was in December of '61 with the album released in 1962 - thanks to Tom Lamb!), and the second version (my own favorite) is Stewart's 1973 re-imagined performance from the wonderful Cannons in the Rain album:

"Chilly Winds" for Chilly Winds
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Stewart dedicates the number in the liner notes to Shane and Reynolds. I might add that this video was a personal gift to me from Tom Salter, which is why the second part is replete with pictures of my own group, named in honor of this song.

I always loved the ways that John Stewart re-thought his performances of "Chilly Winds," and here is one of his better later performances, captured by friend and partner Paul Rybolt in Dalry, Scotland in 2003:

My favorite re-imagined version of the tune comes from 1984, when Stewart recorded an EP with his former Kingston Trio bandmate Nick Reynolds, who sang on the original 1962 recording:

One critic described Stewart's style here as "reminiscent of [1980s band] A Flock Of Seagulls, but infinitely more subtle and tuneful."

Several other professional groups also recorded the song, including Jay and the Americans:

It works nicely with the soft pop/folk/rock treatment and Jay Black's really sweet vocals here.

The Cumberland Trio (from the University of Tennessee and Hootenanny! and not to be confused with Stewart's original group) does a bang-up version of the song, here from their 2001 reunion concert:

The CT is using the basic KT arrangement but with the addition of a Cannons in the Rain-like slide guitar - a near-perfect hybrid, I'd say.

The different vocal tonalities of today's Kingston Trio lends a rather different sound to the song as well:

This is one of hundreds of Trio Fantasy Camp videos shot by our dear friend Bo Wennstam of Mallorca, who is battling cancer now - and whom we miss and love.

There are scores of amateur performances of the song on YouTube, many of them quite fine. I wanted to close with this one from Kevin Dorsey, who recorded his own multi-tracked version with a video dedicated to his late father on what would have been his dad's 60th birthday (my age....) last November:

Dorsey's video is for me the perfect evocation of the profoundly bittersweet melancholy of this wonderful song. It deserves to be sung and sung again and again, both for its own merits and for the way it expresses this most universal of human emotions. And by singing it, we both memorialize John Stewart and renew the continued existence of his songwriting legacy.


Mike said...

Most interesting thing about this to me is the completeness of the song and the number of verses Stewart and Phillips came up with. My ex was a John Stewart fan and had four of his early solo albums -- One I think was eponymous, then Willard, Through a Glass Darkly (?) and Lonesome Picker.

I liked his songs and played a couple of them myself, but I always thought he left too many songs uncompleted -- once you looked beyond intros, repetitions and breaks, you realized that he'd really only written two verses and a bridge. Sometimes not "two." Great hooks but not much meat.

I always wanted to pair him up with Phil Ochs, who would go just the opposite direction, writing long, drifting songs that were brilliant but needed to be cut by about a third.

Without having heard all those CDs, I can't make a sweeping comment on his entire corpus of work, but, based on this, I'd say Phillips made a good partner.

Jim Moran said...

Agreed Pete - and I remember you making similar comments about fiften years ago when we talked on the phone a few times. I felt the same way about a number of JS's best songs - though on a this one and many of the later ones (see his last CD "The day The River Sang from 2006) he hit some home runs with complete songs of substantial length.

greenhawk46 said...

I think in this thoughtful piece, that the CW version is the best-since I think this is a melancholy song-and should be sung that way-like a dirge-not a ballad or a love song-slan, Jim H.

Jim Fix said...

Any Chance you've got Revenge of the Budgie and could do a show on it?

George Thomas said...

Playing "Chilly Winds" with a couple of friends yesterday led to a difference of opinion over whether the correct lyric is "If I can forget you" or "If I can't forget you" (I've always thought "can't"). There is a kind of logic to either of the options if you think about it carefully. Nearly all lyrics on the web give "can" if you look under Kingston Trio, but some of the John Stewart lyrics give "can't" and a few give "can". Has anyone seen the official and original score? Listening to the KT3 sounds a bit like "can" but that may just be a short, hard "a" vowel in "can't". Whatever, it's one of the most beautiful songs of all time in its own genre, I feel.

Jim Moran said...

Hi George - This has been an ongoing conversation with my folk friends and me as well. So - Stewart and Nick Reynolds ran a "fantasy camp" in Scottsdale, AZ between the years 2000 and their deaths in 2008 (the camp has continued under sole surviving original KT member Bob Shane), and I've been a part of it every year since 2003. Naturally, I asked John Stewart this very question, and his reply doesn't resolve the issue, exactly. His response was to the effect that he wrote it as "can't" but that the KT's 1962 College Concert recording used "can" - and that as you note both work well with different shadings of meaning. His last word on it was "Sing it the way it means the most to you."

And I too regard it as one of the loveliest songs I've ever heard, 55 years after I first heard it.


Jim Moran