Birthday greetings to British folk-rocker Al Stewart, who celebrates No. 66 today.
Known best for Year of the Cat — some folks know him only for that — Stewart incorporates more history into his music than perhaps any other artist. Listening to Stewart as history is a little like going to a movie in lieu of reading the book — your knowledge may not be as in-depth, but it will whet your curiosity to know more.
Stewart’s early albums are more folk and less folklore, and focus more on relationships than relationships of history. But 1973′s Past, Present and Future was completely devoted to historical subjects; it’s been a major theme since.
He introduced many a listener to the 16th-century seer Nostradamus (“I am the eyes of Nostradamus, all your ways are known to me,” Stewart wrote) on Past, Present and Future, and more on Time Passages’ A Man for All Seasons to English statesman Sir Thomas More, whose end was less than utopian — More was beheaded in 1535 (“What if you reached the age of reason, Only to find there was no reprieve, Would you still be a man for all seasons?Or would you just disbelieve?”).
But his songs were often about figures little-known or little-remembered, especially to the American part of his audience; even if you were a history buff, there was something to learn from listening. Among the subjects of Stewart’s history lessons are:
- Charlotte Corday, who murdered Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, and was, in turn, guillotined. “All at once there’s someone there that only you can see Seeking the forgiveness that will set her free,” Stewart wrote on Famous Last Words.
- Old Admirals chronicled the life of John Fisher, who spent his life in the service of the British Navy and was recalled to service at age 73 during World War I. “And sometimes think in all this world the saddest thing to be, Old admirals who feel the wind, and never put to sea,” Stewart wrote on Past, Present and Future.
- Sir Richard Grenville was a 16th-century British admiral whose hunt for treasure and capture by the Spanish was memorialized in a Tennyson poem nearly 300 years later. “Go and tell Lord Grenville that our dreams have run aground,” Stewart wrote on Year of the Cat.
- The Last Days of June 1934 chronicles the purge of Ernst Rohm from Hitler’s inner circle, The Night of the Long Knives and a Europe unaware. “And Europe lies sleeping, you feel her heartbeats through the floor, On the last day of June 19..” Stewart wrote on Past Present and Future.
There’s more — from Warren Harding to a Russian soldier’s perspective of World War II, as chronicled by Aleksandar Solzhenitsyn (Roads to Moscow, link below) to Robert Scott and Antarctica, to pilot Amy Johnson on Flying Sorcery, to the performer Josephine Baker to General Heinz Guderian in Roads To Moscow . . . like the Russian skies in that song, the list goes on seemingly forever.
Here’s a link to the latter — there’s more than two minutes of ad-libbing before the song:
“And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I’ll be home again and the morning answers
And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies go on forever”
Sources: Alstewart.com, wikipedia.org,