History: The Singer/Songwriter

If it is true that to be successful in the music business, it all begins with a song, what role does the songwriter play in that process? The answer is not simple, and, in fact, has changed over time. The songwriter has evolved from being a servant to others to the master of his or her own domain.

For many years, the songwriter was, in effect, a hired gun. Songwriters worked for publishers and created material that other people would perform. Often, a song was put together with a particular individual in mind, and included elements that would illustrate their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. A songwriter might well perform his or her wares for a prospective client, but few of them considered making a transition from the piano to the public arena. They hoped for a hit, and then hoped for another hit after that, and spent their careers creating a catalog of commercial goods.

Over time, the fine line between songwriter and performer began to erode. Take the hit makers who worked in New York’s celebrated Brill Building, such as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Often, they would record the demonstration records (or “demos”) of their songs to be played for clients. Less often, but in some cases quite successfully, they recorded and released songs that achieved commercial success: as, for example, when Mann scored a hit with “Who Put the Bomp,” co-written with Goffin.

All of this changed in the 1960s, primarily due to the impact of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. That is not to say that there were not successful singer/songwriters earlier, or that some genres of music, other than pop, encouraged artists to write their own material. Folk and country music were most notable in this regard. Some of the reigning icons of songwriting were aligned with these fields, such as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. Both artists influenced countless other writers, often outside their own genre. Most of all, their work established certain standards that future singer/songwriters tried to emulate. When a song is both written and performed by the same person, audiences assume that the material comes from the heart; that it emerges from the person’s own experience. A certain transparence is inferred such that the audience believes a singer/songwriter has cast aside any impediments to their thoughts and feelings and put into words their honest and authentic point of view.

That certainly was the case with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who also pushed the envelope of what could be accomplished in a commercial piece of music. They avoided formulaic conveniences and attempted to create fresh and innovative vehicles. Their impact on other writers was inestimable. They felt as if the bar had been raised as to what a song might be like: what kinds of ideas could be expressed; what kinds of words used; and what kinds of emotions initiated.

The folk revival encouraged young people to find vitality and authenticity in the traditional music of the nation. Also, the movement induced many individuals not only to reject electric instruments but also to stand before an audience on their own: just one person communicating their thoughts with a single instrument, usually an acoustic guitar, for accompaniment. These individuals began more and more to put aside the traditional repertoire and create work of their own. Some of the most successful artists of the 1960s, and later, fall into this group, including Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Fred Neil (“Everybody’s Talkin’), Tim Hardin (“If I Were A Carpenter”), Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne”) and Janis Ian (“Society’s Child”). Some of the Brill Building songwriters took up the mantle of the singer/songwriter as well, most notably and successfully Carole King, whose album Tapestry was one of the most successful such recordings of all time.

In other genres, such as soul and country, many artists began more and more to put out their own work. Major figures like Otis Redding and Dolly Parton, to name but two, took up the mantle of the singer/songwriter and created catalogs that embodied the complexity of their personalities.

As rock & roll began to emerge as the most successful genre of the times, the singer/songwriters often subsumed themselves into a group. Audiences were more and more drawn to the excitement and energy that an ensemble could ignite. Instrumental solos and technical expertise took a front seat to the impact of the solo performer. That is, however, not to say that the singer/songwriter disappeared altogether. In fact, while some of them relished the raucousness of rock & roll, they kept their personal identity at the front and center of their catalogs. Writers like Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”), Lucinda Williams (“Passionate Kisses”) and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac took this kind of career path and made excellent recordings.

Williams’s and Nicks’s achievements, as well as Carol King’s and Dolly Parton’s, also draw attention to how many women have been attracted to the opportunities inherent in being a singer/songwriter to speak in the first person. A significant number of the most influential and impressive singer songwriters of recent time have been women, such as Nanci Griffith, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Ani DiFranco, and Sarah McLachlan. McLachlan influenced this evolution by her establishment of Lilith Fair, a festival that annually showcased the talents of her gender.

The singer/songwriter still holds a vital place in the musical marketplace, even amongst the competing agendas of rap or teen pop. The public will routinely gravitate to material that brings them in touch with a person’s emotions when they are intelligently and memorably expressed. The success of writers like Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst, in addition to much of the work associated with the Americana and New Folk movements, bears witness to the vitality of the phenomenon. Also, if you think about it, a format like MTV’s Unplugged, wherein rockers put aside their amps for acoustic guitars, indicates how perennial the possibilities remain in the opportunities that occur when expression is stripped to its essentials: one performer, a set of words, a haunting melody and an acoustic guitar.