The Singer-Songwriters

From today's perspective, the category seems almost odd. Singer-Songwriter? If you wrote it, you may as well sing it, right? But this is, in many ways, a line of thought that started with the Beatles and hit a high point with the Singer-Songwriters. Go back a few years before the Beatles and the tasks of writing, singing, and playing the instruments on a recording were typically divided amongst distinct groups. Buddy Holly, singing and performing his own material, was an anomaly; the Beatles helped make Holly's approach the norm. In their wake came a group of artists who made the fact that they "did their own stuff" the defining feature.

James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, John Prine — these names are among the many that recur in lists of the Singer-Songwriters. Different from the Beatles, they didn't tend to present as a group. They often had groups, but when one went to see them perform, it was to see the individual — that's where the focus was. Sometimes their voices were idiosyncratic, often their visions were uniquely their own. Randy Newman certainly offered a case study in just that.

From a perspective of social context, the Singer-Songwriters emerged out of the idealism of the 1960s but marked a shift away from utopian ideas of collectivity. These artists embodied the "inward turn" of the 1970s. Their songs were often intimate, very personal reflections on their internal experiences. More often than not, they came into the room as poets. Their performances were subdued, eschewing changes of clothes or dance moves. Things got quiet.

The lessons in this chapter will explore all of these changes, isolating a few musicians to explore their work and their historical moment in some detail. In addition, what might be called a post-Singer-Songwriter class, including Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, and others, will allow students to consider how Rock and Roll's energy came back into popular music with the power of the Singer-Songwriters left intact.