In a time long ago – well, sometime before the early 60s – songwriters wrote songs and singers sang them. It was less often that people did both. Of course there were exceptions; arguably it was the coming of Bob Dylan that signalled a great leap forward for singer-songwriters.
But, cast your mind back, if you can, to March 1962 and the release of Dylan’s self titled debut album. Of the 13 songs on the album just two were written by the Bobster. Five were Dylan’s arrangements of traditional songs, two were other people’s arrangements of traditional songs, and there were covers of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jesse Fuller, Bukka White and Curtis Jones. It wasn’t until a year later, in May 1963, that Bob’s second album revealed his emerging songwriting talents: 11 of its 13 tracks were Dylan originals. Two months earlier and Lennon and McCartney wrote eight of the 14 tracks on The Beatles’ debut album. It was something of a turning point.
Dylan came out of the folk tradition, and it was the acoustic-folk genre that was – and remains – the spiritual home of the singer-songwriter, where performers tend to provide the sole accompaniment to an entire composition or song, typically using a guitar or piano. The political protest songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie are what people thought of as singer-songwriters before Dylan, but by 1963 there was a subtle shift that accelerated as the 60s advanced. Even before that time, however, singers such as Hank Williams were forging a place in musical history where they wrote and performed their own songs, though they were often backed by a group, which causes some to forget that Williams was a true singer-songwriter.
Go back a little further and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Son House and others from the Mississippi Delta were doing just the same in the 30s. Add to that list Robert Johnson, who created a canon second to none of songs that have been covered by countless others ever since. But at the same time, never forget that when Johnson was playing juke joints and house rent parties, he would frequently cover the hits of Bing Crosby who was singing songs from the writers that frequented New York’s Tin Pan Alley. He, like so many performers, was trying to entertain and earn a crust… the covers band and covers singer is a proud tradition. Recently someone posted a video on line of a guy with a guitar covering Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ on stage at a hotel, somewhere in America; Stevie himself was in the hotel and he went on stage to join the unknown performer to sing his own composition. Somehow it feels like the tradition finally came full circle.
We have tried to come up with the ultimate playlist of the greatest songs performed and written by singer-songwriters. It includes all the usual suspects, From Dylan, Elton and Stevie to Carole King, Joni and Dolly. It also unearths some real gems by singer-songwriters who have crafted superb songs that forced their way into our list.
There’s Scott Walker’s ‘Such A Small Love’, from his debut solo album; one of Canada’s finest songwriter-singers, Gino Vannelli and ‘Gypsy Days’ Nashville’s Gretchen Peters’ ‘Secret Of Life’, Clifford T Ward’s ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ and Stephen Bishop’s ‘On and On’. Which is just what we could do with this list… The 70s was the heyday of the singer-songwriter, but they are as meaningful today as they’ve ever been.