He died ten years ago at the age of 68. He didn’t achieve fame at the level of some who admired him, among them James Taylor, Carole King, Lindsey Buckingham, Nanci Griffith and Roseanne Cash.
Nevertheless, he remains a highly-acclaimed hero of Americana music, one of the original singer/songwriters to blend folk music with rock. He wrote consistently over five decades, leaving a rich body of work including over 50 albums. His music has a way of opening the mysterious pathways of the human heart. It inspires a tenacious zest for life.
John Stewart (1939-2008) elevated “all forgotten people, never heard and never seen” with his artistic gift.
It’s a beautiful thing to contemplate an artist’s entire body of work after his passing, and I was reminded of that when I attended a tribute concert honoring Stewart a few weeks ago at Stargazers Theater in Colorado Springs.
It was a blast to hang out in a crowd who could sing along with “California Bloodlines” and “A Little Road and a Stone to Roll” while wondering who among the gifted local musicians would step up and “blow the roof off.” That turned out to be Chuck Snow with his driving rhythm renditions of “You Can’t Go Back to Kansas” and “Midnight Wind.”
We fail artists when, by necessity, we reduce a career to a few sentences. Fans of Stewart’s work feel the privilege of familiarity with unrecognized gems of human truth and artistic mastery blending poetic genius with fleet-fingered guitar.
The standard synopsis of Stewart’s career goes like this. The young man got a break when he joined The Kingston Trio in 1961. His “Daydream Believer” became an international sensation when it was picked up by The Monkees in 1968. His 1979 album Bombs Away Dream Babies (with appearances by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks) produced three singles that made the top 40: “Gold,” “Lost Her in the Sun” and “Midnight Wind.”
Yet “Daydream Believer” and “Gold” are ridiculously unrepresentative of Stewart’s work.
I might not have known that had it not been for my husband, who, way back when we were dating, lent me his copy of The Phoenix Concerts. I was moved by the picturesque “Pirates of Stone County Road,” and “Mother Country” and impressed with the guy who had the sense to recognize a songwriter of depth who wasn’t widely known.
After we’d been married for a couple of decades, Rick and I got to meet Stewart at a weekend show in Chama, New Mexico. When it was my turn to shake his hand, I quickly related the story of how his music made me take a second look at the man I married.
The singer looked over at my husband with a wry smile and said, “Don’t you believe it.”
Stewart, as always, had a point.
He wrote hundreds of songs over a lifetime of creativity, about an album’s worth every couple of months. A good many of them don’t appeal to my sensibility (he freely admitted “I have not been known as the saint of San Joaquin” and indeed, Rich Mullins he wasn’t). Still, I could never stop listening to Stewart.
Each album contained gems that renewed my optimism and stretched my soul. Stewart always left me a little more human; vulnerable to the pain of others, asking essential questions in the face of the temptation to cynicism, as he had done in a song written after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, for whom he campaigned in 1968.
“Shoot all the brave horses, and how will we ride?”
As a serious believer, I’m also looking for a writer to reveal his heart, to let us in on what matters most to him, what he believes about things beyond the material world. John Stewart did not disappoint.
Attentive listeners discover a fondness for Christ (“Friend of Jesus”), antipathy for organized religion (“Great White Cathedrals”), wistful agnosticism (“I pray to the wind on a Christian hymn”) and yes, faith. In his 1998 “Botswana,” a song that made me know I needed to care more, he sang:
Oh, faith it is a fire,
And it’s fanned by the winds of thanks,
I am worried of our numbers,
And I’m worried of our ranks,
As we fire up the Porsches,
Fighting to survive,
And we look for valet parking
Out on Rodeo Drive….
And it makes it hard,
I wonder if God cries
When he sees the pictures
Taken at Botswana,
The pictures of the children
With the flies in their eyes.
Ohhh, credo domino.
Credo domino. Lord, I believe.
Stewart attended Catholic school as a young man and one can see an increase in Catholic themes in his later work. However ambivalent he may have been toward the Church, John Stewart always seemed sincere, searching, perhaps looking for the most universal strain of hope he could find.
There are the references to crossing the heart and the sign of the cross (“Reasons to Rise,” “Runaway Train”). There’s “The Eyes of Sweet Virginia,” which one day suddenly struck me as having Marian overtones. “The eyes of sweet Virginia were headlights on the road, a beacon for the weary heart that hardens as it goes…In the eyes of sweet Virginia was something I had lost.” These sad words are followed of course by the inevitable Stewart optimism:
Hang on dreams, you ain’t seen it all.
And I don’t want much, I just want it all,
And I will search forever here among the stones
Oh to find a girl who looks like home.
And then there’s “Teresa,” written after a disappointment at New York’s Omega Institute in 1992. Stewart, it turns out, was not just an accomplished songwriter, but a photographer and artist who sketched in charcoal and painted in acrylics. Among his subjects were people he admired including John F. Kennedy and Mother Teresa.
Stewart tells the story behind the song in the liner notes to Teresa and the Lost Songs:
“I was teaching a songwriting course. I was asked to bring the paintings of Mother Teresa I was doing to display in the dining hall. After being up for a day, the executives asked me to take them down as ‘…they didn’t want people thinking that’s what Omega is about.’ I always thought of Mother Teresa as a great human being like Ghandi, not a symbol of the Catholic Church. Anyway, I was not pleased. I wrote the song in about thirty minutes and sang it there in a show I did with Tuck and Patti.”
“The place went crazy,” he adds, “and they called more attention to the Mother than if they had left them up…the power of songs.”
They were only pictures of the promise
A higher soul who knows no rest
Who serves the poorest of the poor,
She is the best of all the best.
…Teresa fell without a whimper
Higher artists make no sound
In the Omega Hills of the New Awareness
They made me take the Mother down.
They made me take the Mother down.
Mother Teresa is indeed more than a symbol of the Catholic Church but in fairness to her, she did say unequivocally that her strength came from Eucharistic worship and adoration there. “The best of all the best” still shines for those seeking holiness, even in these dark days. But in fairness to John Stewart, I know what he meant and I’m proud of how he defended Mother Teresa, eloquently pointing out to those who wanted to distance themselves from the saint:
Hungry people in Calcutta would never take the Mother down.
That’s not all there was to Stewart’s spiritual quest, of course. I hear the fruits of his ventures into Eastern spiritual practices as well, again the longing of a heart that can’t believe the only things that are real are those we can measure with our limited scientific instruments.
Just eight years before he passed from this life, Stewart wrote a fascinating song called “In the Field Where the Angels Dance.”
It tells me there was much more to this man’s thought and heart than “people out there turning music into gold.”
“It’s in the light of the long forgotten burning deep in the Milky Way,” the song opens, evoking the beginning of Creation. “It’s in the night of the prayer wheels turning in the dawning of the day.”
…It’s in the fame of the fire starters,
And the cave where the Crow Man paints…
It’s revealed in the gold of the tombs of Cairo…
It’s in the of faith young St. Sebastian,
He never cracked when the arrows flew,
It’s in the face on the Shroud of Turin, yeah
And the miracle of Guadalu….
It’s the thread throughout history: glimmers of evidence offering hope that our longings for the Divine and the immortality of the soul may one day be realized.
It’s in the field where the angels dance
To the rhythm of the hearts who are waiting for a chance…
In the field where the angels dance.
John Stewart, I’ve listened for decades to the rhythm of your heart and the power of your song as you worked it out on the strings of your guitar. Rest in peace.
Hope I meet you some day in the field where the angels dance.
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Beautiful tribute to John Stewart’s music and the spiritual quest of his soul: My Journey with John Stewart: Memories of a Lonesome Picker.
Great songs are still being written. This one took my breath away just after news broke of more scandal than I’d ever dreamed possible in the Church: Kevin Heider reveals his heart in The Body. You have to hear it. And keep the prayers coming.