John Stewart: a great unknown

When I belatedly went online in 2000, the first words I typed into a search engine were ‘John Stewart’. I wanted to know what had become of my great musical hero since I lost track of him in the 1980s. In the pre-internet days, it was easy to lose track of musical heroes if they weren’t played on the radio and their records were not in the shops.  

I discovered a lot. He was still writing songs and still recording them, only now for his own record label, since the majors would no longer give him deals. And he was still touring. I had never seen him perform. On the rare occasions I might have done, the fates always conspired to prevent me. In 2000, though, I saw him on three consecutive nights at the Turf Inn, Dalry, in Ayrshire, and soon after at a club in Tin Pan Alley in London.

John who? you asked two paragraphs ago. How fleeting is fame, especially when you don’t chase it, which John didn’t. John Stewart was a member of the most popular group in America in the years before the Beatles arrived: the Kingston Trio. He wrote one of the best-known and most recorded songs of all time: Daydream Believer. (No, it wasn’t Neil Diamond.)

He was a folkie. He had the good fortune to be there for the folk boom of the early ’60s. He had the misfortune to die, in 2008 at only 69, before folk became fashionable again. For the time between, he swam against the tide, which is perhaps what suited him best.

Paul McCartney once said, in answer to a question as to whether Yesterday would become dated one day: ‘Songs don’t date; only the arrangements.’ John Stewart could have written many hits, had he chosen to arrange them differently, or had he shown the slightest interest in commercial success. One or two people, mainly country artists, did cover his songs and had hits with them in America. That is misleading, because he was never a country singer and – although he defined himself as a folk singer – he was a great deal more than that.

Part of him was an unreconstructed rocker. His favourite group was the Rolling Stones. His favourite record was Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. A song he wrote and recorded late in life was played incessantly on a Mississippi radio station, under the impression it had discovered a black blues singer that no one had heard of. He was an acknowledged influence on Fleetwood Mac, and they on him, Lindsey Buckingham in particular. Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash and Roseanne Cash all sang on his records.

You never knew what interpretation of his own songs you would hear at a John Stewart concert. As a friend of his put it, ‘John never sings a song the same way once’. Probably my favourite era of his music (and there are fifty years to choose from) was the late ’70s, when he fronted the World’s Loudest Folk Band. He was his own man and a one-off.

It was hard to be a folkie in the ’60s and not be politically committed. John was an active liberal and an active Democrat until the end. He walked on the epic Civil Rights march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1965. He recalled the event in a newspaper interview:

‘Over five thousand people tramped in the hot sun through the Alabama cotton fields, while the cars of the State Troopers and the White Citizens Council drove provocatively past. John Stewart, then a major celebrity with the Kingston Trio, joined the march for the final three days. “I stayed in this bombed-out church in Selma – the windows had been dynamited out, and we had to outrun the rednecks with baseball bats. It was like being in a war zone in your own country.”

The marchers were 30,000 strong by the time they reached Montgomery, their numbers swollen by celebrities. John Stewart remembers that “Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez came in to walk the last mile. I hope you print that! I’d like to have seen them the other three days, when the National Guard weren’t around.”

Stewart left Montgomery lying on the floor of a car along with [Peter] Yarrow and [Harry] Belafonte, so they wouldn’t be seen by the Klansmen. They escaped unharmed, as did [Pete] Seeger, who had a nervous wait at Montgomery airport, where there was no police protection. In the aftermath of the march, the Klan shot one demonstrator as she drove down the airport road.’

In 1967, John was the official troubadour to Robert Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, as he had been for Kennedy’s campaign for the Senate in New York. He was the warm-up act at the rallies and sang from the backs of trains on Kennedy’s whistle-stop tour of America. ‘The plug was really pulled when he was shot,’ he said. ‘It seemed to me and a lot of people then, what’s the point? What’s the point?’

John Stewart had a wicked temper. That was evident in his rant against Ralph Nader (‘a second class K-Mart excuse for a dreamer … a toothpaste tester’) when Nader’s independent candidacy in 2000 allowed George W Bush to become President. He also had a deadpan sense of humour. On one occasion he was walking through Nashville with his friend Roseanne Cash, then a big country star, when a stranger came up to them and said: ‘I just love your new record.’ ‘Why, thank you,’ said Roseanne. When the stranger had gone, John turned to Roseanne and said: ‘How do you know he wasn’t talking about me?’ I’ve borrowed that line for my next novel.

And the music? It’s hard to talk about the music because the music should speak for itself, and it does. Seldom have a writer and his music and his lyrics and his performance been such an indivisible whole. Most of his albums are available on Amazon, and many songs can be downloaded or listened to as extracts. Rolling Stone magazine listed California Bloodlines, John’s first solo album, among the 200 best albums of all time. I think my own favourite is Cannons in the Rain. When I showed him a draft of a book I’d written with that borrowed title and asked him to sign it, he wrote above his signature: ‘Great title.’

John didn’t worry about getting old. On his later recordings, his voice sounds entirely different. When someone said it was a pity he had lost such a great voice, John said he hadn’t lost it: he had changed it deliberately. He was now old and he thought he should sound old.

There haven’t been many like him.