John Stewart,
The Day the River Sang
(Appleseed, 2006)

Since his days with the Kingston Trio, John Stewart may have written more songs than even he can keep track of. A handful made the charts and afforded their composer, who would never be a name in many houses, sufficient royalties to keep touring and recording for close to half a century. Probably everybody has heard Stewart's "Daydream Believer," the Monkees' megahit. Those who were listening to country music in the 1980s -- the last time mainstream Nashville was willing to bankroll creative approaches and material -- will recall Rosanne Cash's splendid cover of the more satisfying (and grown-up) "Runaway Train." And in 1979 Stewart himself had brief Top 10 success with "Gold." Beyond that, Stewart has labored among the cult artists, wandering from label to label in search of fame and fortune outside the confines of a small but fervently loyal fan base.

When I first heard Stewart, it was in his Kingston Trio phase, and songs like "The Reverend Mr. Black" -- sung though not written by Stewart -- were to me no more than pleasant, ephemeral AM fodder. In due course, he walked out of the Trio to go solo. The initial Stewart-only LP, 1969's California Bloodlines, knocked lots of us, listeners and critics alike, for loops. At the time the idea of singing folk-based original songs to full-band Nashville arrangements -- now nothing that would raise eyebrow or occasion comment -- was radical, even shocking. (In the interest of full historical disclosure, it should be noted that meanwhile, across the street, Bob Dylan was recording Nashville Skyline, actually a considerably inferior album.) Then on Capitol's roster, Stewart had access to the top-of-the-line Nashville pickers. He entered the studio with a fistful of stunningly accomplished songs: the title tune, "Omaha Rainbow," "July, You're a Woman," "Missouri Birds" and more. The music that resulted has taken up long residence in a multitude of memories, including my own. It's still in print, and if you haven't heard it, I politely urge you to remedy that at first convenience.

Having grown up in the small-town Midwest (where I live again after an extended sojourn in the big city), I never saw Stewart's vision of rural America as, well, anything but a romantic one. This is, after all, a guy whose home was and remains Los Angeles. But it didn't matter. The country -- in the senses of both rural space and nation -- that Stewart conjured up was one that, if it didn't exactly exist, ought to have existed. His optimistic liberal patriotism spoke to me in a period when all of us walked the valley of the shadow, surrounded on one side by an insane war and on the other by borderline-sociopathic governance. It made it possible to believe that a better, purer nation and people were out there somewhere, could be reached, would return one day. Instead, the bad old days are here again, along with something not bad at all, a new John Stewart record.

The Day the River Sang, the fourth Stewart release on the excellent independent folk label Appleseed, is less thematically consistent than its predecessor, Havana (2003), a brilliant, gloomy evocation of a Bush-era America in freefall. Stewart has always been a political writer and performer; at his most explicitly partisan, he traveled as the official troubadour of Robert F. Kennedy's doomed 1968 presidential campaign. He is not, however, in the mold of the guitar/banjo evangelists -- Guthrie, Seeger, Ochs, early Dylan -- though they're all influences, inevitably. Stewart's way of working at larger issues is so imbued with hints of private struggles that the boundaries between the political and the personal blur. Consider, for example, Havana's "Who Stole the Soul of Johnny Dreams?" Is it about career disappointment or the disintegration of a once-idealistic nation? While great novels have been written on the subject, few songs have so effectively addressed spiritual stagnation in a totalitarian state as "Waiting for Castro to Die" -- concerning, of course, Cuba under an aging, fading tyrant but also pointedly bringing to mind America in the soul-sapping years of the 21st century's opening decade.

As so often happens to those who got hooked on Stewart in the era of California Bloodlines and its follow-up, Willard (1970), I have carried a kind of emotional investment in Stewart and his muse. (I reviewed one, I think -- I can't remember which -- for Rolling Stone. Or maybe it was another of the early records. Well, never mind.) It's not just the always professional songcraft; it's also that as a thinking, loving, despairing, anxious, romantic, still dimly hopeful fellow citizen, he grapples with many of the issues that occupy my own reflections as human being and American. Yes, as some reviewers noted (some so obtuse as to complain about it), his once-magnificent tenor is now rough and weathered. The inevitable consequence of singing and living -- and, we learn, of worrisome health of late -- surely. But that voice fits the songs, which are no longer, cannot be, young man's tales. Way back when, a Bloodlines cut bore as its title the confident admonition "You Can't Look Back." Now, however, a whole lot of what Stewart does is looking back. That happens to all of us down that long, lonesome road, when the miles behind us are all too distant and the destination is all too looming.

It is pleasing to hear that gravelly voice up front, too, supported by appropriately unfussy arrangements -- mostly just a guitar or two, bass and percussion, sometimes less than that -- affording the listener at least the illusion of intimacy (even if one suspects that in person Stewart is probably as guarded as they come). Uniformly strong, the 13 songs are generally not so dispirited as Havana's were. Still, "Sister Mercy" is sad and desperate and beautiful, with Stewart (or as I understand him) recalling his travels through South Dakota with RFK and holding to what remains of that shattered dream.

I am also partial to the pure folk of the traditional-sounding "Run the Ridges," an outlaw ballad, as well as to the elegiac, post-Katrina lament "New Orleans" (written with his longtime wife Buffy Ford Stewart). There's "Naked Angel on a Star-Crossed Train," which up to a point feels like a John Prine number; the point is reached in the first line of the third verse, when Stewart gratuitously clarifies, "An angel is the muse." Prine wouldn't have done that, but still, somehow it manages not to be so ham-handed as it looks in cold print.

Likewise, "Midnight Train" may have no more than a generic name, but put that aside and give it a chance. Yes, the bluesy rhythm is, as some will recognize, ripped brazenly from Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues." Nonetheless, it's one hell of an entertaining ride on its way to a terrific punchline, at the expense of the Cadillacs' goofily enigmatic "Speedo." If you remember 1955 and had a radio or jukebox within listening distance, that verse will smack you to the floor, and it'll be a while before you're able to stop laughing and pull yourself together.

by Jerome Clark
4 March 2006

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