When Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature it certainly stirred the academic pot. He was not only the first American to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993 but also the first songwriter to ever receive the prize.
While some claimed it was long overdue, others called it an “ill-conceived nostalgia award”. The Bard’s lyrics are even studied at universities and he’s also published author (Tarantula’s not transcendent but it’s not A Night Without Armor, either).
As Dylan said himself, “It ain’t the melodies that are important, man, it’s the words”. But when it comes to breaking down the Nobel qualifying factor of “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, the music is part of a musician’s language and imparts more meaning to lyrics than just reading them off the page. Which begs the question, are pop songs today’s poetry? And if they are, what other singing poets are also worthy of the prize?
Nina Simone was not only a spellbinding singer but she’s also responsible for turning a movement into music with her revolutionary songs. Simone wasn’t political from the onset, instead she was making her mark on Tin Pan Alley standards but by the mid-1960s, Simone became known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
The secret to her subversion was all in her delivery. Musically, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ sounds like a peppy show tune while the lyrics rail against racial inequality and the brutal murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Church Bombing. She employed the same tactic for ‘Old Jim Crow’ couching anti-segregation lyrics into a jazzy nightclub tune. While her lyricism was frank as in ‘Revolution (Parts 1 and 2)’ and ‘Four Women’ it also served as a salve to those carrying the emotional burden of those turbulent times.
The sixties birthed many social-conscious songwriters and Pete Seeger not only sought social justice through song but also through action. But hearts are not won through self-righteous lectures and Pete knew how to turn a tune. Whether it was the labour movement, civil rights, Vietnam, and beyond, Pete believed in the power of folk music as valuable history lesson and catalyst for social change. Before Dylan was proselytizing in Greenwich Village, Seeger was in McCarthy’s crosshairs for his song ‘I Had a Hammer’ written his co-member of the Weavers, Lee Hays.
He would continue to ruffle feathers with his anti-war song ‘Waist Deep In The Big Muddy’ and the iconic ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ which poetically illustrates the terrible cyclical nature of war. From Russian folk songs to the Old Testament, Seeger drew inspiration from a diverse mix of sources. His song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ pulled from the Book of Ecclesiastes, became a massive hit for The Byrds and became the defacto anthem for world peace.
Superfly might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think Nobel material, but Curtis Mayfield in his own way, created new poetic expressions within soul music and elevated the genre’s sound and subject matter. From his 60s politically-charged anthems to his funkadelic work in the 70s, Mayfield earned his place in music history and the civil rights cannon.
Even within the constraints of his group, the Impressions, he penned an ode to black pride, ‘We’re a Winner’ and ‘People Get Ready’, the silkiest call to arms you’ve ever heard. After going solo, he became more emboldened with ‘Move On Up’ and his Blaxploitation opus, the Superfly album. Curtis saw through the façade of flashy success extolled in Blaxploitation films and instead created an entire world of dealers, junkies and pimps that was more akin to street poetry. Like Simone, Mayfield was gifted with a golden voice that also cushioned the sting of social commentary in his songs.
Townes Van Zandt
“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that,” said Steve Earle and we’re inclined to agree. A cult figure in the world of country and beyond, Van Zandt was a master of telling stories through song.
One could argue all country songs follow the same trajectory (down and out times, love lost, inebriation) but Van Zandt’s self-effacing delivery sometimes overshadowed his uncanny ability to conjure up vivid imagery with words. From the doomed coal miner’s daughter in ‘Tecumseh Valley’ to the outlaw tale ‘Poncho and Left’ he became the characters in his songs.
His lyrics were also punctuated by extremes, much like his personal life, from the liberating ‘White Freight Liner Blues’, ‘To Live is to Fly’ to abject sadness and poverty of ‘For the Sake of the Song’, ‘Awaiting Around to Die’ and ‘Marie’. Van Zandt even flexed his descriptive powers on a song about a simple couple’s quarrel and her “eyelids made of stone’ in ‘Why She’s Acting This Way’.
Coming out of the 60s singer-songwriter heyday, Phil Ochs wrote songs more to incite than inspire. With a caustic wit and keen observer of humanity, he was the political bard of the era. While Dylan was the face of the Greenwich scene, Ochs flew slightly more under the radar, especially when it comes to his legacy. The two were often compared to each other, but Ochs career was more akin to Seeger, with a charming voice and a passion for activism. With songs like ‘Here’s to the State of Mississippi’, ‘Talkin’ Cuba Crisis’ and ‘The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo’, Dylan famously remarked, “you’re not a folksinger… you’re a journalist”.
Even if Ochs lyricism took a more straightforward approach, his songs gave voice to everything that America was feeling at the time. Whether he was undercutting the hypocrisy of the American dream in ‘There But For Fortune’ or calling out the alarming apathy surrounding the Kitty Genovese murder on ‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’.
As the punk poet laureate, Patti came close to a Nobel, accepting and performing at the ceremony on behalf of Dylan, but is better known as a performer than a songwriter. But Smith was always a poet first and foremost and imbued a poetic delivery to her songs.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” came out of a poem she wrote when she was 20, as did much of the songs on her seminal album, Horses.
Smith toyed with poetry readings, using a guitar accompanist and then eventually adding an entire band. To understand Smith’s songwriting is to know who her muses were. If Dylan was a result of Kerouac and Ginsberg, then Smith came out of Rimbaud, Blake and Shelley. From the poetical voice of ‘In My Blakean Year’ to the blend of punk and poetry on much of Horses, the music serves more of a dramatic backdrop for her words.
Nick Cave has made a career out of brooding as an art form. The post-punk performer sets himself apart with his captivating lyricism, spinning stories of sex, death and faith.
As the son of a literature professor and an accomplished novelist and poet himself, the words are equally if not more important than even the music itself. His lyrics are darkly humorous and even uncomfortable at times, as Cave relishes in the “divine discontent”.
As the Poe of rock n’ roll, he doesn’t not deal in cheap macabre but instead finds truth in fables, fantasy, prophecy and folklore that apply to contemporary life. Even amidst the murderous tales of revenge (‘The Curse of Millhaven’) and expletive laden love songs (‘Far From Me’) he manages to plumb the greatest depths of meaning in every song. As for creating new “poetic expression”, his work has the transformative power of a novella, something most songwriters couldn’t possibly pull off. As Cave said it best, “Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix”!
A poet and novelist who abandoned a promising literary career to become a musician, are you noticing a pattern here? As one of the most influential singer-songwriters to emerge from the sixties and seventies, Leonard Cohen didn’t set the bar for Nick Cave and later songwriters, he created it. With a career spanning nearly five decades, he was still making dark, profound music even at age 82. Rather than lyrical flourishes, he stuck to a more spare prose that still managed to be intensely personal and conveyed the kind of philosophical longing that lead to the moniker “master of erotic despair”.
Like Ginsberg, he was a cult figure at the time, inspiring the next generation of romantics to explore the stalwart themes of love, faith and death. While ‘Suzanne’, “Marianne’, ‘Bird on the Wire’ and ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ stand as some of his best poetic expressions, the song he’s best known for his the accidental hit ‘Hallelujah’, made famous by Jeff Buckley. While countless covers have slightly diluted its place in the public consciousness, it still contains some of his best lyricism. It’s impossible to separate his lyrics from his voice. It imparts each word with a heaviness that carries with it the wisdom gained from a life lived hard and yet is somehow melodious. Even his anti-war anthem ‘The Story of Isaac’ conveys slaughter in a spiritual way. Every song is deep, multidimensional and stays with you long after the record stops playing.
Even though he’s the pride and joy of Canada, Neil Young is a pioneer of the Americana music scene. Even before his catchy-country folk album Harvest propelled him to stardom, he was penning sardonic lyrics during the height of flower power for Buffalo Springfield’s debut album.
Ever the iconoclast, he always seemed reluctant in his stardom. His unpredictable career has led to him dabble in different genres, shifting from rock to country to blues to different lyrical styles, sometimes simple and earnest like ‘Heart of Gold’ to bewildering and evocative lyrics on ‘Albuquerque’. Like his peers at the time, he was also the master of crafting subversive political anthems, like ‘Ohio’, ‘Rocking in the Free World’ and ‘Southern Man’. But his true calling card was the lyrical lessons embedded within each song. From the feminist ballad of ‘Unknown Legend’ to the confessional ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and the stream-of-conscious anthem ‘Ambulance Blues’, no matter the subject, his lyrics is always open, honest and without artifice.
If you want to get technical, maybe hip-hop itself deserves a Nobel prize? After all, what other form of music is responsible for creating new forms of poetic expression within music? As one of the godfathers of hip-hop, progenitors of political rap, what better candidate than “The Teacher”, otherwise known as KRS-One?
Along with his group Boogie Down Productions (BDP), KRS revolutionized the 80s East Coast hip hop scene as one of the first groups to fuse dancehall with hip-hop, rock and soul on their debut album Criminal Minded, paving the way for gangsta rap. Despite having a hand in creating the genre, KRS purposely distanced himself from the scene. As one of the emerging “conscious hip hop” artists, he fashioned himself more a street poet or philosopher and released By All Means Necessary, featuring the landmark tracks ‘Stop the Violence’ and ‘My Philosophy’, that would spawn countless hip hop quotables.
Layering razor-sharp social commentaries over hard beats and the Blastmaster’s whip-smart lyricism, BDP would become a key player of the New York-based Afrocentric scene. While the line-up would change, KRS’s provocative lyricism would remain constant. As a primer, you only have to listen to ‘Questions & Answers’ where he interviews himself in rhyme. No topic was taboo or not worthy of examination, from police brutality (‘Sound of Da Police’) to black on black crime, education (‘Why Is That’) materialism (‘Love’s Gonna Get’cha’) or spirituality; he’d put it on the track.
Perhaps his name is not as well known to general public, but without Bernie Taupin there would be no Elton John. His creative partnership with Elton has lasted longer than most marriages and the two collectively have written more than fifty Top 40 hits. As John’s lyricist partner of 50 years and a songwriter for hire for other artists, Taupin’s lyrical output is astounding. It’s rare that a songwriter can plumb the depths of his own personal life as well as his partner’s and yet that’s what Taupin’s done.
He’s drawn upon his own rural upbringing as well as personal relationships and events from Elton’s and his own life. Like many of his peers, he doesn’t fancy himself a “lyricist” but more of a storyteller and it’s the devil in the details where he really shines; like “A couple of the sounds that I really like, are the sounds of a switchblade and a motorbike. I’m a juvenile product of the working class, whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass” from‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’ . There’s a reason why ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ and countless others have remained such enduring hits. Sure Elton could probably make the phonebook sound transcendent, but Taupin’s keen eye and charming wit are what make them iconic.
Follow our 25-All Time Great Singer-Songwriter Albums playlist to discover more of the best singer-songwriters.