Former teacher and Western artist uses history, stories to write original music

John Bergstrom performing at OutWest on Main Street in Newhall. Courtesy of John Bergstrom.

Seven years ago, John Bergstrom officially traded his life in the classroom for a life on the stage where he could perform and write Western music full-time.

The retired social studies professor and former vice principal uses his own background in history and passion for music to create one-of-a-kind songs based in narratives and facts.

“There are just these neat stories and interesting people in the current west nowadays and in the old west in the early-1800s,” Bergstrom said.  “Every story is a potential song.”

The Valencia resident does something with music every day, whether it is writing or practicing, in order to hone his skills.

“You got to do something to get better every day, to maintain your skills,” he said.  “You got to work at it every day because if you’re not getting better then you’re getting worse.”

With nominations for Best Western Performer, Best Album and Best Song by the Academy of Western Artists for 2016, his constant efforts have not gone unnoticed.

And this dedication and love of music began many years ago, when he first learned how to read sheet music and play multiple instruments.

Interest in music

Raised in a family of musicians, Bergstrom began playing music at 4 years old.

“I started doing music as soon as my parents could get me to do it,” he said.

John Bergstrom performing at the Cowboy Music Festival in Tombstone, Ariz.  Courtesy of John Bergstrom.
John Bergstrom performing at the Cowboy Music Festival in Tombstone, Ariz. Courtesy of John Bergstrom.

When he was a child, Bergstrom would play church music and traditional Swedish music before he joined school orchestras in junior high and high school, learning to play piano, bass and guitar along the way.

“When I was a little kid I played piano.  Then when I was in elementary school they started me playing bass,” he said.  “I’ve always had music in my life.”

He dabbled in folk music and bluegrass music for several years, all while starting and continuing his teaching career, before he attended a 2001 New West concert which started him on the “road to cowboy music.”

“When I moved out here to Santa Clarita there was a little blurb in the paper saying a band called ‘New West’ would be performing at the little amphitheater there in Stevenson Ranch,” he said.  “That just struck me.”

After attending a show by cowboy entertainer Dave Stamey, Bergstrom knew he could combine his two passions into one.

“A lot of what he did and still does is historically-based and that just fit naturally into what I do because I taught history for most of my teaching career,” he said.

Song-writing inspiration

Over the years, Bergstrom has created five CDs with approximately 40 original pieces of music, most of which are based in history.

For many of his songs, Bergstrom seeks out stories of the Old West or of the Santa Clarita Valley to be the focal point of his lyrics.  He has written songs about the St. Francis Dam Disaster, Old West bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, stagecoach driver Charlie Parkhurst, among others.

“The history of the Santa Clarita Valley is very much the history of the Old West and the history of the Movie West with the Hart Mansion and Hart Park,” Bergstrom said.  “There’s neat history here.”

Several of his songs have come from audience feedback or friends’ suggestions.  His song “Charlie Parkhurst,” about a woman named Charlotte who hid her identity to be a stagecoach driver in California, spurred from a friend’s recommendation to look into the history of the character.

“I’ve gotten four or five songs that way, where people have come up and given me a suggestion for a song,” Bergstrom said.  “I can’t guarantee to write the song, but it often gives me motivation to find something.”

“Western State of Mind” members John Bergstrom, John Nelson and Gency Brown at the Saugus Train Station.  Courtesy of John Bergstrom.
“Western State of Mind” members John Bergstrom, John Nelson and Gency Brown at the Saugus Train Station. Courtesy of John Bergstrom.

Bergstrom also hunts for songs while he is on vacation with his wife.  While in Oregon, the couple visited the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center which sparked Bergstrom’s inspiration to write a song about the western end of the Oregon Trail.

“I go hunting for songs when my wife and I travel,” he said.  “It’s interesting because usually I find something and that gets my creative juices going too.”

Bergstrom also aims to create songs that teach the audience something new, like that popular filming locations for Old West movies along the 14 and 118 freeways were also once popular locations for actual Old West bandits to hide.

“I wrote a song about Tiburcio Vasquez [a California bandit] and when I introduce the song I usually tell the audience, ‘I don’t know if you realize, but you live in bandit country,’” he said.  “I’m still teaching school sort of.”

Performing throughout Santa Clarita Valley

During the year, Bergstrom performs at locations throughout New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and California.  He also makes a point to perform on most Sundays at Athena’s Restaurant on Soledad and the first and third Thursday of the month at El Trocadero Steak House on Main and Market.

Bergstrom has played for private parties, festivals and events, but his favorite performances are what he calls “house concerts” where the audience can sit and take in the lyrics of his music.

“I like playing for smaller groups because the stories of my songs need to be listened to,” he said.  “It’s that connection.  It’s a neat thing to have people close and nodding their heads up and down; they’re in it with you.”

Another one of his cherished events is performing at a Christmas party for Michael Hoefflin Foundation, which helps fund pediatric cancer research and support families.

“It’s just a nice thing to see all these people to show up for these people and families,” he said.

Bergstrom said there are certain organizations that he makes a point to be available for because of what they do and who they are.

“When there’s a community organization that is doing good work and needs music, I try to do what I can to work with them,” he said.

Western culture and community support

Bergstrom agrees with his fellow Western singer Buffalo Bryan Marr that Santa Clarita is a hub for western music and cowboy poetry.

“There are some neat people supporting western history and culture here,” he said.  “There are a lot of people in the Santa Clarita Valley that appreciate western music more than say in Hollywood or Downtown LA.”

Bergstrom noted that he is grateful for the community support of western culture so he can continue to do what he loves most: performing.

“I think that that is pretty common,” Bergstrom said.  “Performers want to perform.”

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