Saturday, March 23, 2013

John Stewart's "One More Town"

One of the unfortunate aspects of the unplanned hiatuses that I occasionally take from publishing posts here is that I miss dates and anniversaries that in the past have provided me with an opportunity to highlight topics in which I have had an interest stretching back decades. Last week, for example, was St. Patrick's Day - and in the four previous years I have had great fun profiling several of my favorite Irish songs. For several years I also did a late December retrospective on the best versions of songs that I had discovered in the expiring twelvemonth, but 2012 passed without such an article.

Most poignantly for me, I neglected in January to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of singer-songwriter John Stewart, whose death in 2008 I observed in a number of posts, including articles in 2010 and 2011 discussing two of his best-known songs, "July, You're A Woman" and "Chilly Winds," and what might well be a good introduction to the artist for those not familiar with his work, 2012's John Stewart's America. As a performer, Stewart had begun his career as a member of the Kingston Trio when it was America's most popular folk group, so it is no surprise at all that Stewart and his songs have figured prominently in these articles over the years, including last August's further reflections on his career while discussing his 1969 tune "Armstrong", this following the death of the first man to walk on the moon.

I had quite a bit to say about Stewart and his career in those two articles linked above and I don't want to be redundant here, but I would like to expand on a point that I made in each of those. Stewart's professional career lasted just under fifty years, and a protean career it truly was as Stewart moved from rock to pop-folk to country-folk to country-rock, back to rock and then roots and beyond - every format of  music popular in his lifetime except for disco. He released an album of "songs to run by." He recorded an album released after his death of piano-accompanied renditions of his songs. He anticipated and then god-parented any number of trends in music in this country and is often credited with being one of the first artists of what could truly be called the "Americana" style of music.

What enabled Stewart to have a viable career over all those years, however thin his concert schedule may have become at times, was his ability to write truly memorable songs. While the Monkees' mega-hit of his "Daydream Believer" - a song still heard and covered and performed today, 45 years after it broke through - may have paid the rent and bought the groceries for quite a while, it was the breadth and quality that his compositions evidenced from nearly the beginning of his career that has made him so remarkable if under-appreciated an artist.

I opined in a 2011 article that of Stewart's earliest work, the most professional and fully realized song that he composed was "When My Love Was Here" - but as beautiful as that 1950s-styled four-chord Kingston Trio ballad was, it was also completely atypical of the kind of songs that became his bread and butter, and to my memory he never again ventured into pop balladry. No, I would suggest that Stewart's coming-out party as a writer of top-notch folk-styled songs occurred in his second album with the group, 1962's Something Special, and what is probably the most memorable tune on the LP, "One More Town." Stewart was perhaps 22 when he wrote OMT, and though he had already had more than his share of adventures as a touring musician by that time, the lyric of the song is a forward-looking imagining, a young person's fervent hope that life can fulfill its early promise as an ongoing series of memorable and affecting experiences. Yet embedded in the lyric as well is an uncertainty - "I'm always goin', but I don't know where" that those of us who are four decades older than Stewart was when he wrote the words must find poignant and perhaps a tad melancholy. We may still be always going, but we know where we have been - and where we are headed.

The initial recording of "One More Town" was by the Trio on that aforementioned album, one that included for the first time in the group's history an orchestral background for the tunes, arranged by top-flight pro Jimmie Haskell:

The lead vocal is by the late Nick Reynolds, whose expressive and full-timbred voice is perfect for the song. While many KT fans found Haskell's orchestrations on most of the album's tracks to range from disruptive to wildly inappropriate, the strings work rather nicely here, I'd say, though I do believe they detract to a degree from the "folkiness" of the composition. Stewart delighted to relate in later years that Paul Simon had told him that Simon's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy") had been inspired by "One More Town," and both the rhythm and general tenor of "Groovy" do bear a striking resemblance to Stewart's work.

As noted in the linked articles above, Stewart could get testy early in his solo career if people asked him to do KT songs, but by the mid-1980s when he was in his 40s, he appeared to have rediscovered his own professional roots, first in an EP with former Triomate Reynolds (The Revenge of the Budgie) and then in a full-length CD titled The Trio Years in which he re-interpreted songs he had written in his Kingston days. All of the tracks are high-quality listening, and "One More Town" is one of the best:

This is the "older and wiser" voice and attitude that Stewart cultivated later in his career. The understated guitar work is for me one of the highlights of the track.

A decade after the KT version, Australia's New World group recorded and released "One More Town." This performance is from a 1971 BBC show called The Two Ronnies:

This is a bit too uptempo and happy for my taste, but the arrangement is professional and the performance creditable. The hair-dos and outfits may give us pause, though. I'm not sure how many of us would like to be reminded that we may have looked that way once. Positively cringeworthy, to cop a term from critic Richard Corliss.

Jeff Hall and Cherokee Road posted this rendition just a few months ago:

It's hard to tell from the video, but I'm going to guess that Jeff and friends are perhaps rather younger than the rest of the artists on this page, and that has got to be encouraging to those of us who want to see folk music in general and quality songs like this survive into the next few generations.

Finally and most interestingly, not to say oddly - "One More Town" as a square dance "call" by Dan Sahlstrom:

I think somehow that John Stewart would have gotten a charge out of this, however strange it may sound. After all, someone thought enough of the composition to adapt it to this use, and that is at least flattering to the tune, however you look at it and whatever you think of the result.

I was a mere wisp of a lad of 12 when I first heard "One More Town." A sensitive and imaginative and sentimental boy I was too, and this song was perfectly attuned to my own dreams of a life of adventure and meaning. But fifty years later, I still think it a wonderful song, and not simply as a measure by which to reflect on how I've lived my life to this point. No, John Stewart gave us a song that as noted above looks forward to and imagines all that life can be, all its possibilities for adventure and achievement. There is no expiration date on dreams, and I believe that we most honor Stewart and this lovely work by holding fast to ours.

1 comment:

mark said...

Nice seeing your group.