Like John Steinbeck before him in print, John Stewart wrote songs that chronicled America’s people and her cultural history. Although Steinbeck is associated mostly with pre‑World War II America, Stewart composed songs during its later tumultuous social and economic growth starting with Vietnam and the civil rights movement to the more recent corporate greed and social injustices in the new millennium. A musical career that spanned almost fifty years allowed Stewart to not only record America’s cultural history over a long period of time, but also permitted him to grow as a songwriter and performer as he looked inward for answers he could not find elsewhere.
Stewart initially followed popular American music from the birth of rock-and-roll in the 1950s to the country’s fascination with folk music in the latter part of the decade, but his desire to grow as an artist and performer caused him to follow his muse and emerge as a solo recording artist in 1969 with a unique style which couldn’t quite be categorized. Was he folk? Was he country? Was he pop? For record companies and radio stations who liked to pigeonhole product to sell to the masses this presented a problem and they rarely gave John Stewart the musical platform he so richly deserved. Although he never became a household name, Stewart’s unique talents allowed him to develop a large cult following around the world that continues to this day. Legendary performers such as the Mamas and the Papas’ founder, John Phillips, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, John Denver, Linda Ronstadt, and Rosanne Cash, who either worked with Stewart and/or recorded his songs, have tremendous admiration for him and his songwriting abilities. There are few people in the western world today who cannot sing the lyrics to “Daydream Believer” since it was first recorded by The Monkees in 1967. The song’s title even holds a place in popular American vernacular and the song has appeared as the score for several television commercials in recent years. But “Daydream Believer” is just one of six hundred songs in the John Stewart canon. Other recordings of his songs that charted over the years include “Runaway Train” by Rosanne Cash, “Strange Rivers” by Joan Baez, “Never Goin’ Back (to Nashville)” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, and “Sweet Dreams Will Come” by Nanci Griffith. Stewart charted with his own recordings of “July You’re a Woman,” “Armstrong,” and “Survivors,” among others, and had hits with his 1979 recordings of “Gold,” “Midnight Wind,” and “Lost her in the Sun” which featured Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks from his album, “Bombs Away Dream Babies.”
The lovers, the liars, the heroes, those who look the other way, those who cannot and those who search for themselves on the road—Stewart wrote about all of them as he experienced the American landscape and its people during his travels over the years on Route 66 and with Robert F. Kennedy on his 1968 presidential campaign. But the one person Stewart drew upon most for material was himself and it was the well he would return to most often, particularly late in life as he looked back at promises delivered and those broken by the American Dream.
John Stewart learned to play the only musical instrument that America can call its own, the banjo, by reading a how-to book in the 1950s that the late, great folksinger, Pete Seeger, had written. In turn, Lindsey Buckingham, learned to play his guitar with banjo licks by listening to John from his collection of Kingston Trio records. Who knows what musical prodigies Lindsey Buckingham has in turn influenced? But everyone should know the part John Stewart played in this musical history chain. There are other reasons so many popular musicians admire Stewart: his love of country and all of its people, his talent as a performer, and his playful sense of humor, usually a pithy quip or knowing remark from the stage, which said so much about the man and aroused gales of laughter from audiences. In addition to his songwriting and performing skills, Stewart was also a painter, a sketch artist, a writer, a record producer, arranger and recording engineer. He even acquired dental skills demanded by ongoing problems with his teeth and the high cost of dentistry and offered to fix those of others close to him, but had few takers.
John Stewart’s songwriting and performing talents demand that his legacy not only be remembered by those who experienced him firsthand, but introduced to those who never knew the man or his music to find their common humanity in his songs and pass them on to future generations.