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History man Al Stewart digs deep for musical 'time passages'

Al Stewart
Al Stewart

By Nigel Stephenson

CROPREDY England (Reuters) - As Al Stewart tells it, every singer starts off writing love songs - but a "disastrous" affair made his efforts so downbeat one reviewer suggested he give it a miss.

So Scottish born Stewart, who later had global hits in the mid-1970s with his "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages" albums, decided to look elsewhere for inspiration.

He is folk-music's history man.

"The only thing I'd done, religiously since I was at school, was to read history. I used to just devour the stuff," Stewart told Reuters backstage at Fairport's Cropredy Convention festival in rural Oxfordshire over the past weekend.

What followed, in 1974, was "Past, Present and Future", an album largely of songs telling stories from history. It outsold his previous four albums combined, he said.

"I thought there's probably room in the world for one historical folk rock singer and no one else wanted the job," he said. Since then, he says, he has written about 100 such songs.

"One of the great things about it is that you never run out of material."

The penultimate song of Stewart's set in front of some 20,000 fans at Cropredy was from "Past, Present and Future".

The haunting "Roads to Moscow" tells the story, from a Soviet soldier's perspective, of Nazi Germany's ultimately unsuccessful invasion of the Soviet Union.

Other Stewart compositions with a contemporary resonance include "Fields of France" about a World War One flyer who never returns, and "Trains" about French socialist leader Jean Jaures who was assassinated on the eve of war.

The Cropredy set included "Palace of Versailles" linking the French Revolution with modern-day France.

"Roads to Moscow" recounts how the Red Army was initially pushed back across Ukraine and Russia to the outskirts of Moscow, where the German offensive foundered. As winter takes its toll on the attackers, the tide turns and the Soviets battle their way to Berlin.

But the song's hero is briefly captured and on his return to Russia, as happened in reality to many thousands of ex-prisoners of war, is arrested by the NKVD secret police and sent to a Siberian prison camp with no hope of freedom.

These are not stories loosely based on history: Stewart's research is painstaking.

"For "Roads to Moscow" I read between 40 and 50 books. I read the memoirs of the generals on both sides. You have to read books by people who were actually there."

For the hero's imprisonment in the gulag, Stewart was inspired by Alexander Solzhenistyn's prison camp novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich".

"You assemble all this information and you try to create a story out of it. I do confess that in a couple of historical songs, I was asleep at the wheel and got a couple of things wrong."

At Cropredy, Stewart was accompanied by two virtuoso guitarists - his regular sideman, Californian Dave Nachmanoff for the first half of the set, before they were joined by Briton Tim Renwick.

Stewart, 68, has no plans to retire.

"How many jobs in the world can you do where you play to two or three thousand people and they stand up and applaud at the end of it? It doesn't happen in banking."

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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