Notes From the Soundboard: Remembering More Recently Departed Musical Talents

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John Dawson fronted this pioneering Americana band.
To read past installments of Notes from the Soundboard, click here.

It's become all too common in our society to mourn the passing of those whose fame has taken them to the heights of international stardom, while all but ignoring others who perhaps lack that same stature. Michael Jackson's recent passing was merely the latest case in point. There was endless, ongoing coverage of every aspect of his demise. Consequently, obits for lesser-known artists have gotten scarcely a mention in the press.

That's not surprising, of course. The public's always reserved its greatest fascination for those who maintain a certain notoriety in terms of fame and/or fortune. Sadly though, it also negates the accomplishments of those who made their own contributions in modern musical realms.

For example, a recent weekend brought news of the passing of John "Marmaduke" Dawson, one of the founders of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, an early offshoot of the Grateful Dead first fronted by Jerry Garcia.  The New Riders later extricated themselves from the Dead's domain and went on to help launch the initial incarnation of the Americana movement. The band left behind an eponymous debut album that still ranks as one of the greatest examples of that genre ever recorded. Dawson's demise barely generated a mention in the media, but his contributions are certainly worth remembering.

This past June brought news of the passing of Koko Taylor, owner of one of the greatest female blues voices of all time and a woman who made a major impact on musical realms formally dominated by men. Long before Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, and Susan Tedeschi demonstrated their talents in the genre, Taylor scored a rare blues hit on the R&B charts in 1966 with "Wang Dang Doodle." The song was written by Willie Dixon and originally recorded by Howlin' Wolf, but was one with which Taylor would be forever identified. With an electrifying stage presence, she was a singular artist who made an indelible impression on the soul of American music.

Likewise, it's not too late to mourn the passing of John Stewart, an early member of the Kingston Trio, one of America's most successful folk combos prior to the start of the rock and roll revolution of the mid-'60s. He was a singer/songwriter whose passion for the American experience inspired him to accompany Robert Kennedy on his ill-fated quest for the presidency in 1968.

The albums Stewart recorded in its aftermath -- California Bloodline, Willard, Songs Through the Looking Glass, and Cannons in the Rain -- encapsulate the imagery of the heartland with a narrative grace that's rarely been bested. Stewart went on to pen "Daydream Believer," a hit for the Monkees and later Anne Murray, and subsequently scored his first and only chart-topper with "Gold" for Fleetwood Mac. However, even later efforts for Nanci Griffith and Roseanne failed to bring him mass acclaim. A new posthumous live album, sarcastically titled Bite My Foot, offers an excellent opportunity to survey Stewart at his best.

Would-be icons all, Dawson, Taylor and Stewart deserve our devotion.

 


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