blog image 1Singer and songwriter John Stewart passed away on Saturday, January 19, 2008. Stewart died in the same San Diego hospital where he had been born. While the obits have been plentiful, and the big songs and albums cited, I decided to look into the long career of Stewart as a songwriter, at what he brought, at the right time, to a thoroughly confused America, one embroiled in a foreign war, and one that had lost four of its most visionary leaders in John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Stewart traveled extensively with the younger Kennedy on his campaign trail. Along with singing partner -- and later wife -- Buffy Ford, they played on flatbed trucks, from the backs of trains, on stages at rallies. Stewart recorded an album in 1986 called The Last Campaign and filled it with songs written during and about that time.

Most people know that Stewart got his start when he joined the Kingston Trio in 1961 after Dave Guard left. What most don’t know, is that Stewart sang some of the group’s biggest hits, like "Molly Dee" and "Greenback Dollar," and began contributing songs to the group almost immediately. By the time he left in 1967, he was the group's chief songwriter. While his early songs, such as “When My Love Was Here,” from 1961’s Close-Up, and “The New Frontier,” from the album of the same name in 1963, showed him to be a formidable talent, it was his later work that offered a view of America that obsessed him until he died. The 1966 Kingston Trio set Children of the Morning featured no less than nine Stewart tunes.

  • Molly Dee

  • Greenback Dollar

blog image 2Stewart’s first solo record was a duet album with Ford called Signals Through the Glass. It looked at the vast expanse of an America that was still enough of a myth to warrant a view infused with the sounds of its landscapes (“Mucky Truckee River”) and the visions of its heroes and outlaws, from Abe Lincoln (“Lincoln’s Train”) to the women who embodied its hopes and bore its burdens (“July, You’re a Woman” and “Nebraska Widow”), to Jack Kerouac’s hero Cody Pomeray (“Cody”) and those being drafted into service in Vietnam (“Draft Age”).

  • July, You’re a Woman

  • Cody

blog image 3But it was 1969’s California Bloodlines on Capitol that put Stewart on the map as the king of his own castle and as a songwriter of note. Recorded in Nashville with some of the same players who appeared on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, it may be -- arguably -- the very first record that could really be called Americana, as it embodied folk and country traditions and looked straight out at a rock and pop audience and invited them in without compromise. The title track, using California as its microcosm, bit into something as transcendent as Ralph Waldo Emerson, as romantic and visionary as Walt Whitman, as rebellious as John Steinbeck, as redemptive as John Ford, and as sadly prophetic as Jack Kerouac. Yet the songs on the album reflected a majestic and publicly innocent nation that was as contradictory as the images in Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and the photographs of Walker Evans. Stewart's lyrics were literary, but they spoke plainly; they were rooted in history, novels, and the everyday life settings that Cisco Houston's and Woody Guthire's songs were a generation before. California Bloodlines scored big on the charts, and was his biggest album -- though seven more found a place in the Billboard’s Top 200. It is a classic to be sure; but though it’s his best-known offering, it is not Stewart’s classic.

  • California Bloodlines

  • Omaha Rainbow

blog image 4Willard followed a year later on Capitol. By this time, Stewart was well into being his own keeper as an artist, and didn’t play record company games very well. Before Willie and Waylon, Stewart was an outlaw: one who played by his own rules and recorded his own way. The evidence is found here in producer Peter Asher’s repeated attempts to tame the wildness in Stewart’s reedy voice -- none of which worked. The songs on Willard, though sonically close to those on California Bloodlines, with many of the same pickers, are even richer poetically and more poignantly haunting.

  • Belly Full of Tennessee

  • Julie, Judy, Angel, Rain

  • Hero from the War

  • Earth Rider

blog image 5Stewart's run on Capitol was a good one, but after these two outings, it continued on recordings for Warner Brothers and RCA, on albums like Sunstorm, The Lonesome Picker Rides Again, Cannons in the Rain, and The Complete Phoenix Concerts. They stand with their predecessors as milestones in terms of their creativity, their lasting import, and the singularity of vision that their creator -- backed by some of the best California and Nashville musicians -- imbued them with. In retrospect, they served as a less decorative template for the Laurel Canyon scene. That said, it is also true these albums have little in common with those of Jackson Browne, CSNY, or Joni Mitchell, who began in the folk clubs of the early '60s. Stewart was an influence because everyone heard those records and was inspired by them; yet nobody had quite the same grasp on the enormity of America as it filtered down to the individual while remaining firmly itself. The aforementioned artists of the ‘70s came at it from the individual’s perspective and didn’t have the imagistic reach as it encountered the history of American mythos and allegory that Stewart did.

blog image 6It was on 1971’s Lonesome Picker Rides Again that Stewart recorded his own version of “Daydream Believer,” the song that had been such a smash for the Monkees in 1968, and the song he is best known for. The irony here is that without the strings and multi-layered production inherent in the pop group’s reading, the meaning of the song itself changes considerably. Lonesome Picker’s final two tracks, “Wild Horse Road” and “All the Brave Horses,” add layers of meaning to that song, and offer a sweeping, epic look at the romantic American myth in a period of uncertain transition. This is the place in American popular art where Ford’s westerns meet Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and try to hash it out on the road.

  • Daydream Believer

  • Wild Horse Road

  • All the Brave Horses

blog image 7The Complete Phoenix Concerts, issued in 1974, showcased Stewart with a harder, rootsier, rocking sound, with a crack country-rock band that knew their folk cadences well because they were weaned on them and not the Beatles or the Byrds. The band included Nashville session ace Dan Dugmore, drummer Jim Gordon, and Buffy Ford on backing vocals. Ford and Stewart were wed a year later. Stewart showcased definitive performances of some of his best songs.

  • Kansas Rain

  • Last Campaign Trilogy

  • Wheatfield Lady

  • Cops

blog image 8Stewart's chart run continued in the 1970s with albums like Wingless Angels and Fire in the Wind, though they were far slicker, less topical affairs. They did, however, reflect in their own way the decadence of the 1970s. They were setting the stage for Bombs Away Dream Babies, recorded in 1979 with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham produced the set, and Stewart scored his biggest single with “Gold,” with the FM pair on backing vocals and Stewart’s trademark minor-key guitar sound pushing the cut to the margin. Other notables on this set included actress Mary Kay Place on bass and backing vocals, Ford, and drummer Russ Kunkel. Stewart hit the Top 40 with two more singles off the album as well, with “Lost Her in the Sun” and “Midnight Wind.” The strange thing is, that while the music was much slicker and very much of its time, Stewart’s themes hadn’t changed all that much, though his insights were darker, deeper, and more disillusioned.

  • Gold

  • Lost Her in the Sun

  • Midnight Wind

Stewart lost his way musically for a while in the ‘80s (as did a lot of people -- Dylan, anybody?) swinging for the pop fences on his next couple albums. He found his path again with 1983’s satirical and poignant Revenge of the Budgie on the Takoma imprint and then recorded a masterpiece with The Last Campaign. To this day, it is a profoundly moving meditation on Kennedy’s campaign and assassination and what happened to the country in its aftermath. It was as if Stewart had gone full circle and looked back at a place he still believed in but no longer saw.

  • Medley: Clack Clack/Oldest Living Son

  • Dreamers on the Rise

  • Hearts and Dreams on the Line

  • Last Campaign Reprise

blog image 9Punch the Big Guy, released in 1987 on Shanachie, is one of Stewart’s finest offerings and one of his least known. While the production sounds dated, the songs are enduring and offer a perfect distillation of the themes he had explored in his own songs for 20 years, albeit from the other side of the American Dream. The album featured a host of talents like Bela Fleck, Rosanne Cash, Steven Soles, Bill Loyd, Sam Bush, Ashley Cleveland, and Edgar Meyer, and was produced by Garry Velletri. It is a consistently fine set of through-the-glass-darkly reflections and includes “Runaway Train,” a bona fide hit when Cash recorded it.

  • Runaway Train

  • Strange Rivers

  • Botswanna

  • Midnight of the World

blog image 10Stewart continued to record for Shanchie, and later for his own Homecoming and the Folk Era label. It is on this last label that Stewart -- who many had thought simply disappeared -- recorded his last truly great album, called Rough Sketches. The songs were indeed that, quickly written and recorded tunes after two summer trips up and down Route 66. Stewart had recorded the romance of America’s New Frontier two decades before and its fall into oblivion in the later ‘70s. But this nearly raw, immediate, and deeply moving collection -- by a singer whose voice was in deep decline by this time -- reflected the beauty found in the shadows, the treasures in landscape ignored by real estate developers and snake oil hucksters with their empty promises of riches and “the good life.” Stewart at his best had always been able to see that what was left by the wayside as forgotten was as big and majestic as ever. These songs also found grace in flaws, and what is unspeakably wondrous in the neglected parts of a past that, try as we might, could never erase no matter how fast we ran into the “new.” Self-produced and obscure, it remains a testament to his immense gift and contribution.

  • Spirit of the Road

  • The Dogs of San Jon

  • Because of a Dancer

  • Cadillac Ranch

blog image 11Stewart continued to record and release albums until his passing. Of these, Bandera, Teresa & Lost Songs (the title refers to Mother Teresa), and Havana stand out because they all contain fine songs, revealing the true grit and sinew of Stewart the songwriter -- though the singer's voice had been reduced to a croaky whisper, barely recognizable from the expressive baritone. But even in this there is real worth and something worthy of inspiration: Stewart was an artist whose work was not so much a profession as a vocation. He continued trying to refine it, whether or not anybody listened. He remained true to it until he exited the sphere, leaving a body of work that should -- and will, hopefully -- be appreciated for what it was: a musical chronicle in folk, country, pop, and rock of America as it passed from its stature of unquestionable greatness into one that looked in the mirror in confusion and shadow and barely recognized itself. To Stewart, despite all of this, it remained a place of myth and iconography, a terrain where hope was still a last stand for freedom on an as-yet-undefined frontier inside itself -- despite the ambivalence of its 21st century character and what it has shown the world these last 30 years. This was not social or political naïveté; it was poetry in action, the dream spoken, echoed, and refrained continually while looking at the shabbiness of what it had become. Stewart stood tall and looked at it all in the eye with the proper yearning and wistfulness, and the indignation that makes hope possible where mere optimism fails. In his songs embodied the poet, the rambler, the dreamer, the romantic, the worker, and the Jeremiad prophet. In the grain of his voice was a realist who could see things not only as they are, but perhaps could be. We shall not see one like him for a long time, if ever.

  • Keeper of the Flame

  • Teresa

  • The Star in the Black Sky Shining