Sunday, January 20, 2008

John Stewart, the Lonesome Picker, Rides Into the Sunset

A part of my past died Saturday, with the death at age 68 of John Stewart, a former member of the Kingston Trio and the composer of "Daydream Believer," "Never Goin' Back (to Nashville)" and "July, You're a Woman." My intense connection with John's music came about during my college years, the late 60s and early 70s, when he emerged as a solo artist with the album "California Bloodlines." John's work gave rise to a genre of California country-folk rock that influenced artists such as the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Emmy Lou Harris and Fleetwood Mac.

As a solo artist, John never achieved the popular success of the many performers he influenced. There was one exception, and that was with the City of Phoenix, Arizona, my hometown. There a disc jockey named William Edward Compton championed Stewart's work on a local "underground" station, and Stewart became hugely popular. Stewart's cowboy-flavored rocking ballads, filled with a love of the country and its people based on enduring turn-of-the century American values, rather than jingoism, played well with Phoenix audiences.

The love affair of Phoenix with John Stewart culminated when John recorded "The Phoenix Concerts," an album taped live over three nights of concerts in a packed Phoenix auditorium to an enthusiastic and adoring crowd. John's music was cross-generational enough that I attended one concert with my new girlfriend (her first exposure) and one with my parents, and they all enjoyed the shows. Well, the girl broke up with me soon afterward (which was all for the best, because the following Fall I met my wife of 31 years ), and the album was no great success either, much to the disappointment of John and his record label, who had hoped for a breakthrough album. I suspect that 75% of the total sales were to residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Nonetheless, it is still available, and may be the best comprehensive introduction to John's classic solo work of that period.

When I went to Stanford, I turned on my dorm mates to John's music, which had the effect of creating a small but dedicated group of fans in Toyon Hall on the Stanford campus. I remember one incident when John, who lived in the Bay Area, was playing a small club near Palo Alto, and was somewhat astonished when I and a group of my mates showed up at the gig, and knew all of his songs by heart. A mention of Phoenix and William Edward Compton resolved the mystery for him.

Another anecdote: John lived, toured and performed for many years with composer and singer Buffy Ford. In one of his songs, he referred to Buffy's formidable mother as his "mother-out-law," a wonderful lyric. Buffy would usually join John onstage at his concerts, to sing one of the songs their fans most loved, "Cody," about an elderly, infirm former cowboy living in his memories of his Montana youth. One concert, in response to calls from his fans for Buffy to come onstage to sing "Cody," John announced to the fans' heartbreak that they had broken up. Fortunately, the breakup was temporary. John eventually acceded to his mother-out-law's demand that he "marry the girl" and their marriage continued until John's death this past Saturday.

For a news account of John's death, see here. For a description of John's life and musical career, please go here. For a short critical review of his music, please read here. And here, as a farewell to the Lonesome Picker, and an introduction to the narrative, sentimental flavor and poetry of his best work, are the words to "Mother Country":

There was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that of course I forgot to save.
But it was about a lady who lived in the 'good old days'
When a century was born and a century had died
And about these 'good old days' the old lady replied
"Why they were just a lot of people doing the best they could"
"Just a lot of people doing the best they could"
And then the lady said that they did it, "pretty up and walking good."

What ever happened to those faces in the old photographs.
I mean, the little boys…….
Boys? . . . . . Hell they were men
Who stood knee deep in the Johnstown mud
In the time of that terrible flood
And they listened to the water, that awful noise,
And then they put away the dreams that belonged to little boys.

And the sun is going down for Mister Bouie
As he's singing with his class of nineteen-two,
"Oh, mother country, I do love you.
Oh, mother country, I do love you."

I knew a man named E.A.Stuart, spelled S.T.U.A.R.T.
And he owned some of the finest horses that I think I've ever seen.
And he had one favorite, a champion, the old Campaigner.
And he called her "Sweetheart On Parade."
And she was easily the finest horse that the good Lord ever made.
But old E.A.Stuart, he was going blind.
And he said "Before I go, I gotta drive her one more time."
So people came from miles around, and they stood around the ring.
No one said a word.
You know, no one said a thing.
Then here they come,
E.A. Stuart in the wagon right behind
Sitting straight and proud and he's driving her stone blind.
And would you look at her
Oh, she never looked finer or went better than today.
It's E.A. Stuart and the old Campaigner, "Sweetheart On Parade."
And the people cheered.
Why I even saw a grown man break right down and cry.
And you know it was just a little while later that old E.A. Stuart died.

And the sun it is going down for Mister Bouie
As he's singing with his class of nineteen-two,
"Oh mother country, I do love you.
Oh mother country, I do love you."

Vaya con Dios, John. The news of your death even made a grown man break down and cry.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met John Stewart many times in the early 70s when he arrived in Albuquerque for concerts. He was a gentle man who shared his music and his stories with a houseful of roomies from UNM. He was at our house because one of our roommates was a singer/songwriter who had made contact with him. John encouraged new talent unselfishly. I shared these experiences with Jill, Frank and Tom. I hope their memories are as filled with John's magic as mine are.

Sunday, January 20, 2008 5:22:00 PM  
Anonymous cheripy said...

I first heard John when a boyfriend played California Bloodlines for me, and I quickly learned all the words to every song. I was in awe of his poetic genius and the raw power of his vision and voice. I saw him play twice at The Cellar in Los Altos during the 1970s. This was during the period when he and Buffy had broken up (a friend of mine was a friend of hers and he always hoped to end up with her himself), and John was obviously sad, although he performed as well as ever. But one time, they were playing Daydream Believer and he messed up the words by saying, "wipe the sleep out of YOUR eyes." He realized what he had said, and he and Arnie, his bass player then, started to break up. John muttered "Gross!" They tried to go on, but it was no good. So they started the entire song over and when they got to that part, John cracked up again, and they finally decided to scrap the song for that night. They were so funny about it - giggling like little boys. I guess little boys make the best poets. I always felt that I knew him personally, even though we didn't actually meet. He did speak to me once as he passed by. I feel saddened that he is gone and never received the admiration he deserved on a broad scale. But then, his is a poet's soul, and he communicated real beauty, and the accomplishment is its own reward. Wherever that soul resides now, I feel the beauty in him still lingering - still loving America.

Monday, January 21, 2008 1:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Charlie Walker said...

For many years, I hated John for replacing Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. John turned that hate into admiration when I first saw him live at Frost Amphitheater at Stanford. I lost count of the many times I saw him at Chuck's Celler in Los Altos and later in Austin and San Antonio. Whenever I'd get down, I would put on a John Stewart record and could always count on his picking up my spirits. I've felt touched and moved by so many of his songs. His DREAMERS ON THE RISE has probably meant the most to me. The news of his death hit me right in the gut. I feel I've lost a cherished friend and I don't know how I'll fill the void. So long to the world champion Day Dream Believer. And thanks for enriching my life.

Monday, January 21, 2008 11:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just had to post and say I was at that concert at The Cellar too can't remember whether it was '78 or '79! A special night. I'm always gutted listening to John's music, but the past two days I've been bawling. He really brings back the memories, and creates new ones. Fly free in the wind, John!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 12:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He was a musical icon for me, from the Trio years to the Gamble Rogers Folk festival of several years ago. We played many of his songs on the Florida Folk Music Review which I hosted for four years. He wrote from the heart and appeared to live that way as well. Could any of us ask to live more fully and productively, loving our country and our families as he did? Could we have the heart, determination and guts to do what we were created to do as he did? If we all had the courage to stand on our own we could never falter as individuals or as a nation. Oh, that it would be true. He was loved and appreciated. I'm sure we will keep his music alive. I hope we can do as much with his spirit. Thank you, John

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Andy Olson said...

It is truely a sad day with the passing of John Stewart. For many of us his music was the soundtrack of our lives. I had the opportunity to talk with John a couple years ago. This conversation was crafted into a music & interview special that we aired on Radio Free Phoenix. Since Saturday we have been playing sets of his music along with several special programs. This interview with John will play again this evening, Jan 21st at 8pm (MST) on Radio Free Phoenix. There's also an hour in tribute that will air this evening at 10pm (MST) on KWSS 106.7 in Scottsdale. This station is also broadcast on the web.

John Stewart was scheduled to play a show this Sunday evening (January 27th) at The Upper Deck Sports Bar & Grill in Scottsdale, AZ. Instead this show will now be in tribute to him.

John Stewart was truly a Wingless Angel and touched so many in his lifetime. We wish him godspeed..

Andy Olson
Radio Free Phoenix

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met John when he was touring with the Kingston Trio - I always thought he was great and gave a new mature sound to the trio. I play the banjo and one night at the Trio Concert in SLC at Lagoon - John showed me how to strum the banjo with fingerpicks he spent the whole break with me visiting and showing me his style. I'll never forget that, what a great gentleman even at the tender age of 25. The world has lost a great songwriter and talent. Condolences to Buffy and Family.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 1:19:00 PM  
Blogger Geoffrfey said...

I wasn't born in California , not even the United States but in the grim back streets of Northern England.... in 73' I bought the
" Cannons in the rain " album.... it took me immediately to America... at least I thought it did until I bought the " Phoenix Concerts"...... I then knew what it must feel like to live in that far away place called the USA... so far from the industrial north of England. I now live in southern california and I have only today heard of the terrible news of John's passing...... I have listened to The Phoenix Concerts many times over the years but never more than to an endearing audience of one tonight..... something has been taken away from me that will never be replaced in my lifetime...thank you John for what you gave me..... God Bless...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 8:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I booked John on our SummersEnd Festival at Big Sur in Tempe Arizona in 1970 on the advise of William Edward Compton who recknoized his genius early. We got rained out by a 100 year storm but it did connect us to his great talent as a wordsmith and man of conscience. It is so touching that so many remember and relate to his deep and delicious images rendered in song. Thanks for the gifts John that come from every playing of your California Bloodlines...

Bob Gately

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 7:02:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Kosareff said...

I am developing a documentary on John. See the Facebook page for the project at

Monday, January 19, 2015 2:56:00 PM  

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