Al Stewart writes songs, many with a historical bent. In 1974, Stewart released his breakout album, “Past, Present, and Future” with two songs that sealed his reputation, “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow.” The tracts were eight and nearly ten minutes long, but FM radio stations were increasingly featuring songs of extended length, so both grew in popularity.
But, it was side one of the album, where Stewart really polished his bona fides in history. There, five songs each tackled a different decade of the 20th century, “Old Admirals,” “Warren Harding,” “SoHo,” “Last Day of June 1934,” and “Post World War Two Blues.” Of the five, “Last Day” is easily the most baffling without historical background.
The song’s first stanzas paint relaxed scenes of summer love in the fields of France and philosophical curiosity in England’s Cambridge, on the last day of June, 1934. Yet trouble was brewing that none could foresee. “On the night that Ernst Röhm died, voices rang out in the rolling Bavarian hills. And swept through the cities and danced in the gutters, grown strong like the joining of wills.”
For on that night of June 30th, Adolph Hitler began his purge of rivals and internal enemies, the so-called “Night of Long Knives” that ended two days later with the execution of Ernst Röhm, his longtime ally and chief rival. Hitler claimed he killed 61 enemies. Historians say it was closer to 500. The elimination of Röhm as an adversary gave Hitler free rein to exert his Nietzschean “Will to power” over all of Germany.
In the final stanzas of the song, Al Stewart inserts himself into the story as he sings, “I sit here now by the banks of the Rhine, dipping my feet in the cold stream of time.” He knows he’s a dreamer and knows he’s out of line, watching couples pass by living their own moments in time. “They don’t care who Ernst Röhm was, no reason they should.” For they can’t understand what Stewart sees – that their futures have forever changed, and soon enough Hitler will assume complete control of Germany and plunge half of the world into a war that will claim the lives of 70 to 85 million people and nearly wipe out the Jewish race from Europe.
So, each June 30th, I make a point of listening to Al Stewart’s lyrics, contemplating which current world-changing, consequential actions might one day be remembered in song.