Today is the fourth anniversary of the death of John Stewart, the legendary songwriter who inspired me on more levels that I can begin to explain. He left us in 2008 but he’s not gone: his voice, his spirit and his ideas continue. I originally wrote this tribute on what would have been his 72nd birthday; I offer it again today, on his death anniversary, and will keep posting it each year……I’ll never forget this guy, and if even one new person discovers him — well, his music and his vision for America are timeless, and worth sharing. A great singer/songwriter; a great and under-appreciated American; and a good man, gone too soon.
I’ve had a pretty decent run in my life — had my share of adventures, been some places, seen some things — but in all that time, it may well be that the one person I wanted to actually be was John Stewart — I wanted to be him because I wanted to have his gift for discerning something incredibly essential and elemental about human nature, and our country’s nature, and to then be able to pour that understanding into songs that spoke from the heart and reverberated to the depths of my soul. I was a songwriter then, back in the 70’s, when I first came across John — still am, or try to be — and no one before or since has touched me with his music the way John did.
Quick, before you click and wander off somewhere else, give a listen to this fan video of his “Last Campaign Trilogy” — and know that he was on the road in 1968, a crucial part of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, and he and Buffy were devastated by what happened in June of 1969 as we all were – yet he was able to transform his grief in to something uncannily beautiful, and unique, and right and true.
John’s music occupied a strange crossroads somewhere on the spectrum between folk, and country, and Americana. I eventually found myself singing a dozen or more of his songs — July You’re a Woman, California Bloodlines, Kansas Rain (whose lyrics: “I was standin’ in line at the Bank of America/No one spoke we were in the house of god” have peculiar resonance in the America of 2011, but then John’s songs are like that, timeless and true), The Pirates of Stone County Road, Freeway Pressure, The Last Hurrah, A Man Named Armstrong, Botswana, Lost her in the Sun, Little Road and Stone to Roll, Kansas Rain …. those are just the ones that jump into my midn as I write this, there are more, many more.
The song that got me started with John’s music was simple, no frills tune that I never tired of singing — July You’re A Woman. There are few lines here that give me a jolt of pleasure even now, 39 years since I first heard them in 1972: “I can’t keep my eyes on the white line out before me/When your hand is on my collar and you’re talkin’ in my ear/And I have been around with a gypsy girl named Shannon, daughter of the devil/How strange that I should mention that to you, I havne’t thought of her in years…” There was something both random and inevitable about the way he casually tossed that all together and in doing that, conjured up a resonance that was greater than the sum of its parts and hinted at a life that had seen much, but could delight in the moment of now.
Here’s a fan video of John performing one of his most evocative small town America classics — The Pirates of Stone County Road. Having grown up much of my childhood in small town Alabama, this one spoke to me very clearly……
My favorite — Survivors. As John says in his introduction in 2007 for this song written in the mid 70’s — it’s a song that never grows old — “fortunately…and unfortunately”. When I first heard it, the “outlaws in office” were one batch; there have been quite a few batches since then. But the song’s not about them, in fact it’s about how our country survives because of the heart of its people, not its politicans, and it delivers this message in a way that only John could write, and sing. This was possibly my favorite of all his songs. I feel like it digs deep into the soil of the American experience and extracts from it something meaningful that reaches across the many decades since it was written and tells us something about ourselves — and asks questions as well. “Just keep on plugging you old 9 to 5, you are the heartbeat the keeps us alive.”
Finally, there was a song that in some way stood tall above all the others — one that I could never sing because it’s a “talkin'” song and I just can’t quite pull the attitude off right to get that done — but I love the song. Here is a fan video of John singing “Mother Country” from his Phoenix Concert album in 1974:
I’d like to write some more — make some more sense of all this — but it’s time to pull out my dusty Martin and make some music. John Stewart died too young, but he he had a helluva a journey and said some things that mattered along the way, leaving us with a legacy of songs and ideas that won’t be forgotten.
RIP John, and God Bless You, Buffy.