John Stewart (1925-2008)

27. 1. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] A native Californian, the singer and songwriter and one-time member of the Kingston Trio folk group, John Stewart was born in San Diego on 5 September 1939. Stewart’s album California Bloodlines (1969) and Cannons in the Rain (1973) were major additions to a literature of America in song. Major milestones too. His Mother Country typifies the reflective nature of his finest songs. Like the work of the Canadian songwriter Ian Tyson, Mother Country is the past lodged in the present looking out to the future. It was a reflection on the pioneers who opened up the land. It touched deep down. One of the movies for the mind in Mother Country that Stewart ran concerned a blind man riding his horse for the final time.

It frequently seemed as if John Stewart was appreciated better and better received in Britain and Europe than he was at home. Peter O’Brien, founding editor of the Wallington, Surrey-based magazine Omaha Rainbow was an especially passionate communicator of all things Stewart. In the great overlapping period of the 1970s and 1980s many of us writer-editors found ourselves writing non-competitively for what in less idealistic times would have been viewed as the ‘opposition’. Stewart fed O’Brien news of his activities and fed the magazine’s readership with these musings. Stewart even recorded one of his finer obscurities – The Essential John and Buffy – at the Turf Inn, Dalry in Scotland in 1994. Consistent with the interest in the Kingston Trio and John Stewart in Europe, it is no coincidence that the Hambergen, Germany-based Bear Family record label has two 10-CD Kingston Trio boxed sets, helpfully entitled The Guard Years and The Stewart Years, in catalogue.

The Kingston Trio came out of San Francisco’s North Beach scene in 1957. North Beach was a district full of clubs that came and went. They came in all shapes but mainly one size – small – and they offered comedy, folk, jazz and poetry nights. The Kingston Trio was on the bow wave of the folk boom and their form of collegiate, uniformed folk music caught the American public’s imagination. They sold records by the bushel-load and while they were often later derided they were central to the blossoming of folk during the late 1950s and 1960s. Their Tom Dooley was a massive hit in the USA in 1958 (though the story of Tom Dooley is not necessarily a pretty story) but also seeded cover versions elsewhere. The Trio’s Dave Guard left the group in 1961 and Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds cast around for a replacement. Jim McGuinn, later to become a founding member of the Byrds was amongst the people considered. The man who got the job was John Stewart. The joke was that he looked good in a striped shirt; the Kingston Trio and their vertical stripes were infamous. Stewart had been playing and recording with the Cumberland Three, alongside John Montgomery and Gil Robbins – the father of the actor Tim Robbins – and from moderate success with them Stewart was propelled into the folk limelight. He would stay with them for the next six years.

Over its lifespan the Kingston Trio cranked out many albums, leaving a massive vinyl legacy with album titles including Children of the Morning, Close Up, College Concert, Something Special, #16, New Frontier and Once Upon a Time (the last, a live album recorded at Lake Tahoe). By 1967 they were waning in popularity. Their music and image had become something of a straitjacket. New bands of a different kidney coming out of the San Francisco Bay Area had a lot to do with changing tastes too. The Kingston Trio were old hat compared to Country Joe and the Fish, the Great Society, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Many of the musicians in those bands were more than familiar with the Trio’s music though.

So John Stewart moved on and set about carving himself a solo career as a singer and a songwriter and he met with success almost straightaway when the Monkees cut his song Daydream Believer. It became one of the monster hits of 1967 on the back of the Monkees’ ‘zany’ television smash series. He viewed it as something of an aberration in his songwriting career but from such one-offs are the burdens of having to keep nose to grindstone removed. Providing, of course, that the writer has kept a tight grip on publishing and copyright.

Better was to come. Stewart laid down his solo debut in Nashville with Nik Venet in the produce’s chair. California Bloodlines was a work of great authority and it made his name, if not his fortune. Stewart recorded prolifically. The Peter Asher-produced follow-up to California Bloodlines, Willard (1970) had Doug Kershaw, Carole King and James Taylor as guesting musicians on it – an indication of the esteem in which he was held by his peers. Other albums include The Lonesome Picker Rides Again (1971), Sunstorm (1972), Wingless Angels (1975), Bombs Away Dream Babies (1979) (on which Stevie Nicks sang), Dream Babies Go Hollywood (1980), Punch the Big Guy (1987), Bullets in the Hour Glass (1992) and The Essential John and Buffy (1994).

John Coburn Stewart died aged 68 in San Diego, California on 19 January 2008 after a massive stroke.

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