Monday, January 16, 2012

John Stewart's America

Public Sale (detail) by Andrew Wyeth
"Stewart's uncompromising lyrical vision....relates the past as if it were a living, breathing present..." -Thom Jurek, Allmusic
"You have achieved in music what I have attempted in painting."
-Andrew Wyeth To John Stewart

“... His work...constitutes a stunning body of lonesome reflections on the promise and betrayal of the American experience... His is a music of longing... a hushed hope that what is best in this country will somehow emerge....”
—A. Lin Neumann, Phoenix New Times

John Coburn Stewart (1939-2008) was a quintessentially American songwriter, perhaps the quintessentially American songwriter in the decades following the incapacitation and finally the death of Woody Guthrie in 1967, which quite by accident happened to be the year that Stewart commenced his solo career as singer-songwriter and began to create record albums that would midwife into existence the musical genre we now call Americana. Look before '67 and you won't find much that could fairly be described by that term - but following Stewart's late '60s classic LPs Signals Through The Glass, California Bloodlines, and Willard, the genre blooms into a hundred flowers, intertwines itself around folk-rock, and finally morphs into the renascent "roots music" so popular today. Stewart was there at the creation, and his writing and vision influenced a generation of musicians who followed him far more than the public at large is aware or than he is often given credit for. Despite some flirtations with large-scale commercial success (he did, after all, write one of the enduring and all-time feel-good standards of American pop-rock, "Daydream Believer," and he had a number of high-charting singles hits like "Gold" in the late 70s), Stewart as an artist remained as much outside the mainstream of popular music as the characters he created in his songs seemed to exist outside the mainstream of U.S. society - characters like E.A. Stuart and Willard and The Razorback Woman, all of whom we will meet below, and scores, maybe hundreds of others.

For those unfamiliar with Stewart's life and work, a short intro is in order. Born in San Diego as World War II was breaking out in Europe, Stewart grew up mainly in Pomona, CA outside of Los Angeles, though the family moved around somewhat since his father was an accomplished trainer of race horses. In his mid-teens, Stewart fell under the spell of Elvis Presley and first-generation rock and roll, taught himself to play guitar, and started a band called Johnny Stewart and the Furies that released a record of a tune written by Stewart.

His musical direction, however, took a 90 degree turn in 1958 when he heard the acoustic sound of Kingston Trio, which was in the first stages of redirecting American pop into a folk-flavored sensibility that it had only known previously in the late 1940s during the brief run at the top of the charts of the eventually blacklisted Weavers. Stewart taught himself to play the five string banjo (whose sound was at the core of many KT recordings), eventually becoming an accomplished innovator with the instrument, and before he was 20 he had sold two songs to the Kingstons, who recorded both of them and named an album after one. A year and a half later, one of the original KT members left in a dispute with the other two, and both the remaining musicians and their manager felt that Stewart was ideally suited to step in because he knew the repertoire and was already an accomplished singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter. And so in the summer of 1961, a few weeks before his 22nd birthday, John Stewart joined what was at the time in those pre-Beatle days the most popular musical group in the U.S. and quite likely the world, selling as it had more than ten million recordings in the two years prior to Stewart's arrival - in a country with half the population of ours today.

Stewart spent the next six years with the group, singing on some of its biggest singles hits and honing his craft as a songwriter, at points with songs like "New Frontier" and "Road To Freedom" that prefigured his later fascination with American ideals and themes. But as the post-Beatles and electric Bob Dylan phenomena eclipsed acoustic folk music in popularity, Stewart began to chafe at the restrictions of working within a framework not of his own making, however high a platform that framework had given him, and he decided to strike out on his own at exactly the same time that the group decided to call it quits.

The Kingston Trio had sold about $200 million (in 2012 dollars) for Capitol Records, and it was hence not surprising that it was that label that released the first three solo Stewart albums cited above. Though all three recordings were praised lavishly by music critics, none sold well enough to justify to Capitol an extension of his contract, and Stewart began what would become a lifelong odyssey of moving from label to label, first to Warners, then RCA, then RSO, then Polydor, and then to a dozen or more smaller labels. Always - always - Stewart was producing first-rate songs and recordings, greatly respected but with only a few exceptions not charting especially well. Stewart's brush with the big time came during his years with the RSO label, whose Saturday Night Fever was the largest-selling album in history at the time of its release, though the label still managed to go bankrupt just when Stewart's commercial star was beginning to rise with a top 5 single,"Gold," two more top 20 singles, and a top 10 album.

Part of the problem for Stewart was his own maverick nature - he was doing country-rock, electric folk, synthesizer-based instrumentation, and a passel of other genres and styles well before they became mainstream, and his music was often
even less understood by pop audiences of the time than it was appreciated. But there was more than a bit of bad luck or poor timing at work here. John Stewart's vision in his songs of America and its people was never in step with the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, materialistic ethos that has come to characterize American values more in the last thirty years than had ever been the case at any other time since the 19th century. Stewart's compassion for - and identification with - the common folk, the people of the heartland, the people of the forgotten corners of the nation and world, especially those in travail and up against it all, was never going to resonate with a pop culture that celebrated The Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous and elevated minor talents and pathetically broken individuals to demigod status.

So John Stewart soldiered on in the shadow of Fame through the next four decades, ultimately releasing more than fifty complete albums worth of original material and performing in coffee houses, small theaters, folk clubs - anywhere that enough of the small coterie of his rabidly devoted following could be assembled to justify the expense of travel. Along the way, a significant number of his compositions found their way onto other artists' records, with several of those becoming hits. Following his death from an aneurysm on January 19th, 2008, there was finally an outpouring of published appreciation from critics, musicians, and music business people, with major memorial articles appearing internationally in publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Sunday Times Of London, Britain's The Independent and The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and dozens and dozens of others. "Folk Patriarch," those obits called him - "Trend-setting Singer-Songwriter," "Acclaimed Songwriter & Performer" - all the accolades now broadcast in the major print and online outlets that had too frequently ignored him while he was alive, in a final and probably fitting irony for an artist who had courted Fame but never cared enough for her to cut his hair, put on a tie - or ask her out for a second date.

What John Stewart has left behind him as a legacy is as remarkable a collection of folk-influenced songs as this nation has yet produced, and while his range as a songwriter extends into all the reaches of human experience (more on this at the end), his portrait of America as he knew it and cared for it remains likely the single most compelling element of that body of work. That America is the land of "front row dancers" and "cowboys in the distance," of "roses and canyons and night-blooming jasmine," "angels with guns," and yes, "daydream believers." So this retrospective will focus on three themes derived from that vision - American people, American places, and American promise. The songs in each of those categories presented here are wonderful compositions, though many Stewart fans (and my own preferences, in fact) might have nominated others in their places, there is a peculiarly democratic and populist nature to the selections - because these are the John Stewart songs that the people out there in the America of today have chosen to embed in videos and upload to the internet. I think that Stewart would have liked that aspect of it - John Stewart as remembered by the common folks of the country that he loved.

American People

"Willard" - we have all seen Willard Jefferson somewhere, some time:

"July, You're A Woman" - one of JS's most popular songs, covered several times by other groups, in a video created out of the love of Stewart's people and places:

"Razorback Woman" - Uploader CPS Ward describes this as "A difficult childhood recalled with dark, bitter humor" - which extends, as you'll see, to the video itself:

"Wind Dies Down" - A dry summer in the heartland and the memorable Miss Moonlight Albright:

"Mother Country" - a live performance from a few months before Stewart's death. There had been some internet chatter at the time about Stewart having lost his voice - which the choruses here emphatically disprove. One of Stewart's best and most enduring and most idiosyncratic songs with the unforgettable E.A. Stuart and The Old Campaigner:

American Places

"Missouri Birds" - "Go into the world while you're young":

"Kansas Rain" - "Ain't no change in Kansas Rain" - "I was standin' in line at that Bank of America/Nobody spoke they were in the house of god..."

"Let The Big Horse Run" - Kentucky, Virginia, and anywhere the horses race...

"The Pirates Of Stone County Road" - everywhere in America where people remember childhood:

"California Bloodlines" - A bright and uptempo live radio version of a song whose studio recording was rather more reflective; the title song from the album that Rolling Stone named one of the top 200 of all time:

American Promise

The very young John Stewart was imbued with a Kennedy-era idealism that was reflected in his ringingly patriotic compositions for the Kingston Trio, "New Frontier" (sung HERE by the current KT) and "Road To Freedom." As the years passed and the times changed, Stewart's optimism dimmed and darkened to a degree, in part because of his involvement as a kind of official campaign musician in Robert F. Kennedy's ill-starred and tragic run for the presidency in 1968. Kennedy's assassination affected Stewart profoundly, and he tried to come to terms with it in a number of songs, three of the best of which are here.

"Clack Clack" - referring to the clatter of the wheels of RFK's funeral train, an echo of Abraham Lincoln's, complete with Stewart's heartland imagery and very real sense of loss - this from the very early 1970s:

"The Last Hurrah" - a quiet reflection on what we now know was the passing of an era, but an admonition as well to "keep your dreams as clean as silver":

"Dreamers On The Rise" - decades after the fact, Stewart looks back on the idealism of the time in what is the favorite JS song for many of his fans:

"Armstrong" - Out of the darkness of the post-RFK period and the gathering storm of disasters yet to come, Stewart was always able to find a light and a hope:


"Survivors" - Once again, after the Watergate scandal, Stewart looks to the American character for hope in adversity. The high harmony here clearly is the late John Denver, and from the first chorus onward, the song becomes essentially a duet.

"I Remember America" - An early 90s reflection on all that had been lost from Stewart's younger years:

"Botswanna" - Though written in the late 1980s, the theme is as contemporary as the Occupy movement, and with the same sensibility in a general way. It is a song about California and America even more than it is about Africa - "I wonder if God cries"..."Every face you see is you and it is I..."

John Stewart had to the end of his life a trait that I especially admired, one that he shared in common with nearly all other truly great artists and that is conspicuously missing from the work in music of songwriters better-known than he is, many of whom pretend to a level of artistic accomplishment that they have not in fact achieved. Stewart never confused the strictly personal in his music with the universal, nor did he believe that merely setting thoughts and emotions to a tune would make them important. At the same time, he had the genuine artist's courage and hope to believe that he did have something of value to say that transcended the fashionable and the fleeting, that could both address and illuminate what was and remains the best of the country whose landscapes and people infused and permeated his art. It is a daring vision and hope, one that we will not see again from another artist in our lifetimes.


Links to dozens of articles and websites related to John Stewart's life and work, as well as more videos of both Stewart and of other artists covering his songs, are available on The John Stewart Memorial Page.

Last year's Comparative Video 101 post on "Chilly Winds" can be accessed HERE.

The 2010 post reflecting on "July, You're A Woman" is HERE.


jim said...

...Thanks Jim, for this wonderful depiction of the deeply personal dimension to John Stewart's music. It seems a paradox, that some of John's loveliest songs, have probably been heard by the fewest folks.
I think you distilled much of my view of John Stewart down to one sentence in your article;
" artist who had courted Fame but never cared enough for her to cut his hair, put on a tie - or ask her out for a second date."
jim clare

Jim Moran said...

I just saw this Jim - thanks so much! This happened to be almost my favorite article to write of the 195 here - and I took especial satisfaction from that line as expressing much of what JS was about. The other one I felt most deeply is a bit earlier - about how his music would never be in step with a pop culture that celebrated "the lifestyles of the rich and famous." See (and hear) you on FB.