A Brief History Of...Singer / Songwriters


Feb 1 2008, 5:25

The description and playlist below are from the weekly radio show (A Brief History Of…) that my friend and I host on WSUM 91.7fm Madison (the University of Wisconsin's radio station). We selected songs we felt were either historically important or just representative of each specific topic. Please comment if you feel we missed something or just to give your opinion. Remember, however, that we do this show in an hour (about 50 minutes of music). Track length is a major factor in our decisions (shorter is usually better). Thanks!

A Brief History of…Singer / Songwriters challenges the narrow view that most singer/songwriters were overly sensitive and obnoxiously introspective. The first half of the show describes the origins of the genre (and the stereotype). One segment of the show emphasizes that the singer/songwriter genre is a rare one in which women have had an equal opportunity to succeed. The final portion shows that the genre was much broader than it is often given credit for; some singer/songwriters knew how to rock. The show also attempts to draw parallels between current singer/songwriters and their predecessors from the genre's peak in the early and mid '70s.

Here's the playlist from this show (many famous singer/songwriters are missing, but we did our best to get variety...):

The Original Singer/Songwriter:
She Belongs to Me by Bob Dylan (1965). Any one of the folk singers who preceded Dylan could be called the "original" singer/songwriter. Buddy Holly could also get this title as the first rock & roll star to A) use the LP as an artistic format (i.e. not as a single + filler, but as many single-worthy songs in one place) and B) fill that LP with mostly self-written work. However, Bob Dylan is the one person from whom the "traditional" singer/songwriters fashioned their images. Moreover, in 1964 and (more successfully) 1965, Dylan merged the two genres and created the true singer/songwriter as we know the term today.

Early Classics:
One by Harry Nilsson (1968). Many people know the more famous R&B-style cover version by Three Dog Night. The cover is a great song, but the even better original contains the lonely feeling expected of the lyrics.
So Long, Marianne by Leonard Cohen (1968). A better poet than even Dylan. Too bad his voice aged so quickly. This song comes from the poet's first foray into music The Songs of Leonard Cohen. As a side note, the song "Hallelujah," made famous by Jeff Buckley in 1994 and by Rufus Wainwright in the movie Shreck, was actually written and originally performed by Leonard Cohen in 1986.
The Way Young Lovers Do by Van Morrison (1968). The most up-tempo track from Van Morrison's classic Astral Weeks.

The Genre Defined: "Introspective," "Sensitive," "Confessional":
Sweet Baby James by James Taylor (1970). When I think of the term "singer/songwriter," James Taylor is what I think of. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it's not that bad either.
Lullaby by Emitt Rhodes (1970). Since the genre often only requires a guitar and a voice, it is one of the most common musical forms. This has become especially ture in recent years partially because as a singer/songwriter you control your own ASCAP royalties - a more prominent form of income during this slow demise of record sales income. Emitt Rhodes is on this playlist to emphasize that most singer/songwriters ultimately fail to reach stardom. Emitt Rhodes failed because of a bad record deal (he couldn't produce a new record every six months and eventually gave up), but many causes obviously exist that would inhibit a rise to stardom.
Northern Sky by Nick Drake (1970). In my opinion, Nick Drake's three albums together mark the peak of the genre (obviously, given the nature of the genre, this is completely subjective...). Th arrangements are great and the lyrics fit the stereotype of introspection, but not in a pretentious way.
Political Science by Randy Newman (1972). Randy Newman was certainly confessional. He told it like it was, although I'm not sure this song qualifies as "sensitive." Actually, I'm quite sure it doesn't. But the humor of "Political Science" does begin to show that the genre has had a greater variety in style than it is usually given credit for.

Rare Genre in Which Women Have Equal Opportunity:
By its very nature, the singer/songwriter genre allows anyone succeed (given the talent).
It's Too Late by Carole King (1971). Carole King had already been co-writer of over 100 hits that been recorded by everyone from The Monkees to Aretha Franklin. In 1970, King was finally convinced to try a solo career. Her 1971 Tapestry may be the best single album of the genre (just slightly ahead of Nick Drake's work). The only female artist that could compete with King was...
Blue by Joni Mitchell (1971). Blue is the most personal album of the period (that's an accomplishment in this genre). Sarah McLachlan owes her sound entirely to Joni Mitchell.
Brand New Key by Melanie (1971). Many people don't realize that Melanie performed at Woodstock. "Brand New Key" was actually banned for the possible innuendo of the lyrics by some radio stations - Melanie denied it. I find it amazing that only four years after the blatant drug imagery of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" passed the censors, the possility of a sexual innendo raised red flags in 1971.

Singer/Songwriters Can Rock:
Blinded by the Light by Bruce Springsteen (1973). The Manfred Mann & His Earth Band cover version of "Blinded By the Light" was such a huge hit that Bruce Springsteen's original has largely been forgotten. Although Springsteen was still learning how to sing even adequately, the guitar- and saxaphone-led groove of his version is amazing.
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) by Billy Joel (1976). Artists like Billy Joel and the tag-team singer/songwriter duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin push the boundaries of the standard introspective acoustic guitar singer/songwriter stereotype. Ben Folds owes his popularity to these men.
(as an aside, this musical transition might have been the best we've had in any show as the delicate piano coda of "Miami 2017" faded into the darker but still gentle piano notes of...)
Free Money by Patti Smith (1975). Here's a singer/songwriter who played a major part in the beginning of New York Punk scene. She played shows at CBGB with Television and The Ramones as early as February 1975. If "singer/songwriter" and "punk" together don't prove that some singer/songwriters could rock, I don't know what would.

Either the Best or Worst Singer/Songwriter of All-Time:
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis by Tom Waits (1978).

Of course in this show we overlooked many artists. Among the omissions: Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Neil Young, John Lennon, George Harrison, John Denver, Jackson Browne, Jim Croce, etc. And although not usually grouped in this "traditionally" white genre, even Stevie Wonder and Prince might count as major omissions (artists like Alicia Keys seem to be finally doing away with the white stereotype of this genre - at least that's my perception...). In any case, I think that as it is, it's a great playlist to listen to.


  • Eclectic-G

    Interesting article. It would be cool if your show were available as a podcast.

    Mar 15 2008, 21:04
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