Listen to this track by Anglo-Scottish history buff and singer-songwriter Al Stewart. It’s “Nostradamus”, his 1973 song as taken from his fifth LP Past, Present, and Future, released first in Britain at the end of that year, and in the spring of 1974 in North America. The song reveals Stewart’s approach to songwriting in an era before his trans-Atlantic breakthrough Year of The Cat album in 1976.
Al Stewart had been developing his craft for a while by the time he wrote and recorded this tune, having been a fixture on the London Soho folk music scene in the mid-60s, and appearing at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970. This record was the beginning of a time when he was finding his feet as a songwriter tackling character-driven songs in historical settings. In this one, we get a tour of historical references, as interpreted by one Nostradamus, an apothecary and seer of the 1500s in France who allegedly forsaw, among other events, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Rise of Nazi Germany.
But, whether or not there is any credence to Nostradamus’ visions, or more accurately how they have been interpreted in retrospect, the song concerns itself with a greater theme when it comes to history and how human beings perceive it.
Stewart considered Past, Present, and Future to be his first fully realized release, with the four preceding records being a part of his apprenticeship to where he was going as a writer. The musicianship is of a very high caliber, with Stewart being joined on the album by Rick Wakeman of Yes, Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention, Roger Taylor of Queen, and future Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, among others. And where this song is a stark folk song, there is an epic quality that is true to the subject matter.
But, despite it’s epic mystical subject matter, I think the idea of history, and the ability to interpret it, is positioned here as a very human impulse. Really, this is the whole point, even if you’re skeptical about Nostradamus predicting the future, and luckily, Al Stewart is astute enough to understand this. In this song, the human need as people to put our existence into context is the emotional engine at the heart of it. The idea that history is a river in which we are carried is a potent theme too, with our time being and sand and our ways being leaves upon the sea.
Even if Al Stewart would veer away from historical songs like this one in his more soft-rock approach developed by the mid-70s, and with which he had tremendous success, his ability to draw out narratives in his songwriting would continue to distinguish him. And on more recent records, he’d make a return to the more blatant historical approach. But, like this song that helped him to kick off this aspect of his career as a songwriter, he connects history with our tendency as listeners to find the common threads to make sense of our times, no matter which era we’re living in.
Al Stewart is an active musician today. Check out the Al Stewart official site for news, discography, and tour information