J o h n... S t e w a r t
“A master wordsmith who captures the soul of America in his words.”
A mighty tree in the musical forest (and in Appleseed’s orchard) fell on January 19, 2008, when John Stewart – no, not the Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central – passed away at age 68 from a sudden stroke. Obituaries appeared in newspapers and on websites around the world, mostly reducing John’s career to “author of The Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer’) or “Ex-Kingston Trio member.” But some writers dug a little deeper, accurately labeling John as a founder of the ongoing “Americana” movement that combines elements of many “roots” genres – folk, country, bluegrass, country, rock, blues, and original compositions – and helped change and channel the direction of our country’s popular music.
Between 1999 and 2007, Appleseed Recordings was honored to release four CDs by John – John Stewart & Darwin’s Army (1999), Wires from the Bunker (2000), Havana (2003), and The Day the River Sang (2006). These albums, like his estimated 40-some other solo releases, mixed John’s distinctive outlook on the everyday and the cosmic, from horsetracks to the heavens, from fallen angels to shining sinners. Gruff but big-hearted, a talented painter and photographer as well as musician, possessor of a wickedly deadpan sense of humor, John was one of the first artists signed to Appleseed.
To the baby-boomers of the Fifties, John Stewart’s name was synonymous with the Kingston Trio, whose early Sixties hits like “Tom Dooley” and “Greenback Dollar” brought folk music out of the coffeehouses and onto campuses, concert halls and radio playlists. To mid-Sixties teenyboppers, John Stewart was the pen behind The Monkees’ #1 hit, “Daydream Believer.” To rock fans in the Seventies, John was that friend of Fleetwood Mac’s who had a hit single (“Gold”) co-produced by Lindsey Buckingham and a Top 10 album, Bombs Away Dream Babies, that featured Buckingham and Stevie Nicks as guest musicians. In the Eighties, John was part of the “do-it-yourself” movement, recording and releasing albums for his own label as well as for the major companies. Today’s kids are chanting, “Cheer up, sleepy Jean,” thanks to the use of “Daydream Believer” in ads by eBay and other companies. And throughout his solo career, lasting nearly four decades, John Stewart was revered by fellow musicians and serious music listeners as a pioneer and ongoing force in what’s become known as the Americana genre, a tougher, more rootsy tributary of the singer-songwriter movement. Most enduringly, to fans of the singer-songwriter movement that began at the end of the Sixties and continues to unfold, John became an icon of uncompromising talent and integrity.
Born in San Diego in 1939, John wrote his first song, “Shrunken Head Boogie,” at the age of 10. In high school, he formed a band called Johnny Stewart and the Furies that played Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly covers, even recording a now rare single (“Rockin’ Anna”). John’s singing and writing shifted to folk music while he was in college, and two songs he wrote were recorded by the original lineup of the Kingston Trio. At the urging of the Trio’s manager, John moved to San Francisco and formed the Cumberland Three, a Trio-styled group that recorded three albums for the Roulette label.
When founding member Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio in 1961, John was his logical replacement, providing banjo, guitar, on-stage jokes and, most importantly, original material. The Trio recorded more than two dozen Stewart compositions during his seven-year tenure with the group, including “One More Town,” pegged by Paul Simon as the inspiration for his own “Feelin’ Groovy.” John also performed on many of the Trio’s best-remembered songs – “Greenback Dollar,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Seasons in the Sun.” During his final days with the Trio, John wrote “Daydream Believer,” which soon became a worldwide hit for The Monkees (and, years later, for Anne Murray).
With folk music as the soundtrack to activism in the Sixties, John took part in the 1965 March for Freedom in Selma, Alabama, and also joined his friend Robert Kennedy’s Senatorial campaign. In 1968, Stewart again stumped for Kennedy, this time in the latter’s tragically curtailed run for the U.S. Presidency.
After seven years and sixteen albums with the Trio, John left the group in 1968 and recorded Signals Through the Glass with his wife-to-be, singer Buffy Ford. The following year, John went to Nashville to record his first actual solo album, the classic California Bloodlines, which was chosen as one of the 200 Best Albums of All Time by a Rolling Stone critics’ poll.
Many more Stewart records were to follow, as were innumerable cover versions of Stewart compositions by other artists. A startling assortment of singers endorsed John’s artistry by recording his songs, including Nanci Griffith, Joan Baez, Kate Wolf, Eddy Arnold, Harry Belafonte, Robert Goulet, Pat Boone, the Beat Farmers, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Violent Femmes, and Rosanne Cash (who scored a late-Eighties #1 country hit with his “Runaway Train”).
In 1979, John returned to the charts himself with “Gold,” a Top 5 hit from his Bombs Away Dream Babies album (itself a Top Ten success co-produced and played on by Lindsey Buckingham, longtime Stewart fan and creative leader of Fleetwood Mac). The album spun off two more Top 20 songs (“Lost Her in the Sun” and “Midnight Wind”), but the lack of sales for its successor, Dream Babies Go Hollywood, led to a parting of the ways between John and the RSO label, leaving an unreleased album of songs finally issued by Appleseed Recordings as Wires from the Bunker in 2000.
A longtime advocate of the US space program, providing music for a 1964 NASA public service film and writing “Armstrong” about the 1970 lunar landing, John was delighted with an invitation to entertain members of the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center during the 2005 induction ceremonies of three new members.
John’s most recent Appleseed CD, The Day the River Sang (2006), which contains his heartbreaking post-Hurricane Katrina elegy, “New Orleans,” was greeted by Dirty Linen magazine as “another fine chapter in his well-crafted discography,” and as “a great album from one of the great survivors . . . [who] continues to make stunning and vital music,” by England’s Maverick magazine. He was John Stewart, “a man who hasn’t lost his enormous faith in people and who earnestly but eloquently compresses more than four decades of dreams and regrets into his songs” (Rolling Stone).
Click below to listen to an NPR-syndicated “World Café” radio interview and performance by John Stewart from May 2006.
John Stewart’s version of the traditional “Old Riley” appears on our Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger 2-CD set, and “Baby, It’s You” from The Day the River Sang appears on our 2-CD Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary compilation.