Wednesday, August 29, 2012

John Stewart 's American Vision Once More - "Armstrong"

In the last few days, I have noticed an unusual amount of traffic on Comparative Video 101 from a group website called "Our Mechanical Brain", an eclectic and interesting blog with articles covering a wide range of topics. One post was called "Infrequent Bloggers - Part 2" in which blogger Peter Lewis listed some of his favorite non-daily blogs, one of which just happens to be CompVid101. Peter wrote "At Comparative Video 101, each entry focuses on a single popular folk song and explores its history through embedded Youtube videos of the various versions recorded by different artists. Even if folk isn’t your favorite genre, it’s fascinating reading for anyone who likes to see how songs evolve across different cover versions — something that used to be a lot more common in pop music than it is today."

I am of course more than pleased by the notice and the compliment, although I cannot help but feel a little melancholy at one phrase that Peter nailed with absolute accuracy - that intelligent and interesting cover versions of songs are by far the exception rather than the rule in U.S. pop music today. Pure commercialism and the quest for the sure-fire profit shapes American music today as surely as they shape the output of Hollywood, and those media today stand in stark contrast to the wild experimentalism of the 1960s and 1970s in film and music when both artists and corporations often seemed hell-bent to outdo each other in originality and innovation - which is one very good reason why that era is often regarded beyond simple nostalgia as a kind of golden age in American popular culture. You could make a ton of money back then with a radical and shocking movie like Midnight Cowboy or a concept musical album like Pink Floyd's The Wall, satisfying both the artists' need for expression and the companies' need for a substantial return on investment. Everybody won.

What has also all but disappeared from high-profile pop music today is the topical song, those compositions that reacted to significant events at a particular point in time and that hearkened back to the old folk tradition of the "broadside" ballad, so named because the songs' lyrics were often disseminated on large sheets of newsprint that were posted on public walls - hence broadsides. A goodly number of songs profiled on this site ("The Escape Of Old John Webb" or "Jesse James", for example) could fairly be described as broadsides, and while you really couldn't call American topical songs of the 60s by the same term because of format and intent, the offerings of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Buffy Ste. Marie and others stand squarely in the same tradition.

The death a few days ago of Neil Armstrong, who had always known and acknowledged that he was simply the public face of a massive endeavor that involved thousands of people, reminded me that long after today's elections and social issues and bitter, divisive politics are but footnotes in dusty (likely digital) history books, the transcendent significance of Armstrong's stroll across the lunar surface on July 20, 1969 will be remembered as one of humanity's greatest moments, the one in which we all in the personage of Armstrong "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and took our first baby steps out into the cosmos whence we came.

I would guess that had Armstrong taken his walk in 1769 or 1869, a flood of broadsides would have followed hard upon, and people a century later might well be humming "The Ballad of Neil Armstrong" or some such, as historical memory would have been nurtured by songs and storytelling instead of by dry recitation in print or fanciful recreation in film. In the eras before mass media, popular culture was more often a phenomenon that bubbled up from the people rather than as now a phenomenon often created by trend-meisters and faddists who foist the products from their focus-group and market research departments down to the masses for consumption. It is an economic landscape that would more likely create a Neil Armstrong bobble-head than an enduring song about him.

So I think it fortunate that Armstrong and the rest of the rocket boys had a few poetically-minded bards to try to celebrate their achievements, and if Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Norman Mailer's Of A Fire On The Moon are lengthy books in prose and not broadsides, they at least tried to fill the void, the need for a public expression of wonder at what our eyes had seen during those years of lightning when the nation watched each space launch, each moment of life-and-death drama, transfixed by the audacity and the sheer gutsiness of it all.

Fortunate too that John Stewart was young enough to feel the same wonder that those of us a bit younger than he was felt- but mature enough in his craft and chosen profession to have become by then an accomplished songwriter. Seven years earlier, Stewart had written in the liner notes for his Kingston Trio's New Frontier album that "A phrase like that needs to be sung," alluding to the JFK administration's self-characterization cited in the LP's name. And in the title song on the album, as well as several others in the early part of his career, Stewart invoked the space program and its astronauts as the primary symbols of the restless questing of the human spirit that so appealed to him about both Kennedy's rhetoric and the general idealism of the time that the rhetoric helped to create.

So it was no surprise that the 29-year-old Stewart would be so moved by the epic nature of the achievement represented by Armstrong's walk that he would try to express the complexity of his emotional response to it in a topical song, and a fine one at that, a song that stands up through the decades precisely because it expresses that complexity. Stewart's "Armstrong" is not the ringing anthem that his earlier "New Frontier" and "Road To Freedom" were. He is, after all, writing in 1969, at the close of a decade that had begun in such promise but by its end had seemed to descend into a dark and uncertain chaos. That darkness made Armstrong's jaunt stand out the more brightly, providing a counterpoint of hope to the near despair of the black boy in Chicago and the young girl in Calcutta of his lyric. It is a theme that Stewart would revisit again and again in the subsequent decades in songs like "Survivors" and "Botswana" and "Heart of a Kid" - that despite suffering and loss, there is always hope if we only know where to look for it - in the case of "Armstrong," upward toward the stars and toward our highest aspirations as a nation and as people.

Stewart first waxed "Armstrong" while he was still with Capitol, for an album that the label never released. However, it was released as a single and did well in selected markets:

(Well, the CopyVio people got to this version; I'll restore it if it ever reappears. Instead - a very much later JS rendition from the 1990s, one in which Stewart's aging voice conveys a very different perspective than the one from 1973 immediately below.)

February, 2016: Stewart's original single recording is back up on YouTube, at least for now, so here it is, an interesting contrast to the album version that follows:

Stewart is said to have preferred this recording to the one that was eventually included on his first album on RCA, 1973's Cannons In The Rain, in the minds of many his best overall LP. And certainly it was this single version that was taken up by the other artists below. But Stewart's Cannons is a genuinely great album, not least because of the superior recording techniques that RCA was using for Stewart's kind of music - and lest we forget, RCA did practically invent the phonograph record and was the industry standard in sound reproduction for decades. The aural quality here more than makes up for the unnecessary orchestral flourishes - take at least a brief listen and compare to the Capitol single:

The much-beloved Australian country singer Reg Lindsay, one of that nation's most successful "Western" artists, picked up the song in 1971, exactly halfway between Stewart's Capitol and RCA recordings:

Lindsay had a major hit with this countrified "Armstrong," and at his death at 79 in 2008 it was the tune mentioned most prominently in the obituaries.

American Kent LaVoie went by the stage name of Lobo and is likely best remembered by the general audience for his single hit "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo." But LaVoie was a capable if somewhat gentle songwriter in his own right, rather Donovan-esque in his approach, and those qualities are in evidence in his 1974 rendition of Stewart's song:

Finally, Geoff Robertson is a younger folk/roots/songwriter performer who uses all that modern technology affords to put together a tribute video to the moon landing using his rendition of Stewart's composition as the soundtrack:

It's a fine and creative performance released in July of 2009 on the 40th anniversary of the event. The moving and from my point of view entirely appropriate change that Robertson makes to the very ending of the song was done with the permission of the publisher, Stewart himself having died a year and a half earlier.

Neil Armstrong's passing brought back a flood of memories of a time and a place and an optimism now all long gone. But the magnitude of the event itself was captured best, I think, by Lisa Cornwell and Seth Borenstein in their outstanding and moving Associated Press obituary from last Saturday:

An estimated 600 million people — a fifth of the world's population — watched and listened to the landing, the largest audience for any single event in history...Parents huddled with their children in front of the family television, mesmerized by what they were witnessing. Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk...Television-less campers in California ran to their cars to catch the word on the radio. Boy Scouts at a camp in Michigan watched on a generator-powered television supplied by a parent...Afterward, people walked out of their homes and gazed at the moon, in awe of what they had just seen.

John Stewart's "Armstrong" expresses that significance as well, albeit in a different medium and to a different effect. In Stewart's imagination, the moon landing is symbol of all that we can achieve, despite our repeated failures to satisfy the boy's hunger or rid the marketplace of the flies that will cut the girl's life short. For him, it is the capacity to feel awe that gives us the hope that someday - someday - we may be able to do exactly those other things as well.

And In Addition...

Courtesy of Jan Hauenstein of the German chapter of Bloodlines, the John Stewart message group - a guitar arrangement of his for those who would like to learn the song. Jan's key reflects the comfort level of his bass/baritone voice; a capo will do nicely for those who sing in higher registers.

"Armstrong" by John Stewart

(G) Black boy in Chi(Am)cago, (Am7)
Playing in the (G)street,
Not enough to (Am)wear, (Am7)
Not near enough to (G)eat.
(Am7) But don't you know he (D7)saw it
(Am7) On a July after(G)noon,
He saw a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon.

And a young girl in Cal(Am)cutta, (Am7)
Barely eight years (G)old,
The flies that swarm the (Am)market place (Am7)
Will see she don't get (G)old.
(Am7) But don't you know she (D)heard it
(Am7) On that July after(G)noon,
She heard a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Had walked upon the (G)moon.
She heard a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Had walked upon the (G)moon.(Gj7)(G6)(G5)(G4)(G)
(Am) (D)(D7)(G)

The rivers are getting (Am)dirty, (Am7)
The wind is getting (G)bad.
War and hate is (Am)killing off (Am7)
The only earth we (G)have.
(Am7) But the world all (D)stopped to watch it
(Am7) On that July after(G)noon,
To watch a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon,
To watch a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon.

Oh I (Am7)wonder if a long (D7)time ago,
(Am7) Somewhere in the uni(G)verse,
They watched a man named (Am)Adam (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)earth.(Gj7)(G6)(G5)(G4)(G) (Am) (D) (G)

© John Stewart, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

beautifulbotany said...


I thought you might enjoy seeing my video of Armstrong.

Part of a much bigger blog and story that I will put up one day.

Janet Davis Toronto