The evolution of the singer-songwriter

28th Feb 2012 | 12:52

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Finding a voice

The version of the singer-songwriter that we recognise today was born in the ‘60s - also the crucial era when women began to assume equal ownership of the sphere.

From the bedsits of Earls Court to the sun-drenched canyons of California, this new generation of singer-songwriters came of age at around the time of 1967’s Summer of Love, and gave rise to a legion of superstars in the following decade.

The form seemed to die out amid the electronic-led sounds of the ‘80s music scene, but in fact it was merely laying low, changing shape and getting ready to stage a massive-scale comeback - one that pretty much nobody saw coming.

Today’s singer-songwriters have one foot in the folksy traditions of their distant forebears, but the other is squarely planted in the brave new world of YouTube, Twitter and iTunes.

What follows is a whistle-stop guide to the evolution of the modern singer-songwriter. For more history and all the advice that the recording singer-songwriter needs in 2012, check out Computer Music Special 52 - the Singer-Songwriter Production Guide - which is on sale now.

NEXT: Woody Guthrie - This Land is Your Land

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Woody Guthrie - This Land is Your Land
1940

Proudly left-wing folkster Woody Guthrie had “This machine kills fascists” written on his guitar. A protest song often mistaken for a patriotic anthem, This Land is Your Land is his immortal ode to America.

Woody Guthrie - This Land is Your Land

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Jacques Brel - Amsterdam
1964

Belgian bard Brel showed that singer-songwriters could be witty, literate, romantic, sleazy - and European. Amsterdam has been covered by Scott Walker and David Bowie, among others.

Jacques Brel - Amsterdam

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Bob Dylan - Subterranean Homesick Blues
1965

Dylan takes us on a wild ride of beatnik folk-punk with a stream-of-consciousness lyrical romp that’s still guaranteed to blow the mind - and perhaps the most emulated pop video ever.

Bob Dylan - Subterranean Homesick Blues

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Joni Mitchell - Big Yellow Taxi
1970

Gorgeously melodic eco-awareness from Mitchell at her most angelic: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. The song was famously critiqued by a certain Alan Partridge of BBC Radio Norwich.

Joni Mitchell - Big Yellow Taxi

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Don McLean - American Pie
1971

Over the full-length version’s numerous verses, the often bizarre lyrics of American Pie have become music’s equivalent of The Da Vinci Code. Cracking tune, though.

Don McLean - American Pie

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Billy Bragg - Between the Wars
1985

At last a Brit joins our list! In the ‘80s, the ‘big-nosed Bolshevik from Barking’ implausibly revived the Guthrie tradition for a post-punk generation.

Billy Bragg - Between the Wars

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Tracy Chapman - Fast Car
1988

Standing for integrity and compassion, activist singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman was a leading light of a late-‘80s acoustic sorority that included Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked and Tanita Tikaram.

Tracy Chapman - Fast Car

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Elliott Smith - Miss Misery
1997

The suicide of Kurt Cobain cast a dark pall over the ‘90s, and Elliott Smith (who was later also to die at his own hand) was the man who best expressed the decade’s pain.

Elliott Smith - Miss Misery

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
Erin McKeown - Slung Lo
2003

McKeown isn’t a megastar like Jack Johnson or Norah Jones, but Slung Lo perfectly represents the kind of happy/poppy acoustic vibe that has become ubiquitous in mobile phone adverts and the like.

Erin McKeown - Slung Lo

The evolution of the singer-songwriter
PJ Harvey - The Words that Maketh Murder
2011

One of the highlights of 2011 was seeing Polly Harvey perform this jagged gem with her autoharp on daytime TV while seated next to a dumbfounded David Cameron.

PJ Harvey - The Words that Maketh Murder


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