School of Rock Study Guide: Singer-Songwriters

“WHERE DO YOU have left to go but in?” It was a question posed by Joni Mitchell, the brilliant Canadian blonde who specialized in intensely personal songs about her life and loves. Mitchell was one of many folkies from the early ’60s who took their cue from Bob Dylan’s spurning of topical protest in favour of more subjective poetics.

“It wasn’t until Dylan wrote ‘Positively Fourth Street’ that a light-bulb went on in my head,” Joni said in 1994. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, we can write about anything now.’ Prior to that song, anger was a kind of closeted emotion, it just never went into songs.”

If Dylan was the original King Of The Singer-Songwriters, he was also part of a continuum that connected Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. The Singer-Songwriter was a lone poet, opening himself up through song, wearing his heart on his sleeve in order to make the personal universal. Dylan was the key influence on Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and dozens of other troubadour-auteurs. “Politics is bullshit,” Bob told folk singer Phil Ochs. “The only thing that’s real is inside you.”

Most of the American singer-songwriters who emerged in the late ’60s were reconstituted folkies in retreat from the noise and psychedelic overkill of electric rock. They pulled back from the turmoil and violence of street protests against the Vietnam war, holing up in shacks in the canyons of Los Angeles. There they were joined by a different genotype of composer-performer: former songwriters-for-hire who’d penned teen hits in industry hives such as New York’s Brill Building.

Carole King, who’d written girl-group classics with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin, moved to Laurel Canyon and struck up with James Taylor, the new poster boy for sensitive acoustic balladry. Artists as different as Neil Diamond, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Jimmy Webb stepped out of the backroom shadows and joined the new wave of solo artists expressing their feelings – or, in the dissenting words of Ry Cooder, “elevating their neuroses to mythic heights”.

The singer-songwriters made reflective, introspective music for middle-class longhairs – denim dropouts who’d grown out of their Beatles adulation and needed songs that spoke of their internal dilemmas. “A lot of these kids are growing up now,” youth guru Theodore Roszak told Newsweek. “They want family, they want friendship, they want livelihood.”

The ’60s, with their overdose of sex, drugs, and amplified rock, were over. It was time to turn in, chill out, and take it easy.


1 ‘Fire and Rain’ – James Taylor (1970)

Taylor’s honey-smooth voice and intricate guitar picking made ‘Fire and Rain’ the essence of The New Mellow: intimate, understated, melodically soft. For young women especially, James was a new pinup, handsome but vulnerable. Yet the song’s soothing mood was deceptive, for Taylor was a troubled junkie singing about the suicide of an even more troubled friend. “At the time I didn’t think my songs were personal,” he reflected later. “[But] ‘Fire and Rain’ is a very personal song that drew a lot of attention, and therefore people connected me with that kind of song.” Taylor was from New England, but Sweet Baby James showcased the new sound of Southern California.

2 ‘It’s Too Late’ – Carole King (1971)

Encouraged by Taylor, the former beehive queen of New York’s Brill Building switched coasts, settled in Laurel Canyon, and recorded the biggest-selling Singer-Songwriter album of the era. Tapestry was the epitome of laid-back soulfulness, reining in King’s New York pop bravura as she recast herself as an earthy L.A. hippie chick. “I was able to get naked in my sound,” she said of Lou Adler’s clean, stripped-down production. ‘It’s Too Late’ was hushed and smooth, its softly funky piano lick recalling Dusty Springfield’s ‘Spooky’, its mood one of tender resignation over the end of a love affair.

3 ‘I Am … I Said’ – Neil Diamond (1971)

Like King, Neil Diamond was a nice Jewish kid who trudged the corridors of Broadway’s Brill Building – penning the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ along the way – before striking out on his own with such early hits as ‘Cherry, Cherry’. By 1970 Neil had joined the musical exodus to California, hitting No. 1 with ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’. His sense of displacement was reflected in the opening lines of ‘I Am … I Said’, a classic example of the melodramatic self-assertion that was Diamond’s signature style. This wasn’t James Taylor or even Carole King, though: ‘I Am… I Said’ kept one foot in the orchestral pop swirl of ’60s New York, with strings and horns swelling behind Diamond’s richly grainy baritone.

4 ‘And When I Die’ – Laura Nyro (1967)

Laura Nyro was a new kind of singer-songwriter, fusing Broadway operatics with white soul and gospel flourishes that provided huge hits for acts such as Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Fifth Dimension. Her swooping voice and street poetry came from somewhere intensely personal, nowhere more evident than on the ebullient ‘And When I Die’. Which other twentysomething Sixties singer would have confronted death so fearlessly while so cavalierly dismissing the Judeo-Christian precepts of heaven and hell? If she didn’t fit easily into the singer-songwriter camp – and stayed unfashionably put in New York to boot – Nyro was an indelible influence on everyone from Todd Rundgren to Rickie Lee Jones.

5 ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ – Randy Newman (1968)

The nephew of two prominent Hollywood soundtrack composers, Newman started out writing – unsuccessfully – for Metric Music, a poor man’s Brill Building in his native L.A.. But his uniquely satirical voice couldn’t be held down for long, and his 1968 debut as a solo performer was a triumph. One of its standout tracks was this bleak ballad, a distillation of hangdog depression set to mournful piano chords that gave way to heartrending strings. “I used to think it was just college-boy romantic misery,” Randy later reflected of the song. “But it’s not bad.”

6 ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ – Gordon Lightfoot (1970)

A labelmate of Newman’s at Reprise, Canadian folkie Lightfoot had recorded in Nashville and New York before heading west to L.A. to work with producer Lenny Waronker. A bittersweet meditation on the end of his marriage, ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ was mellow, meditative, almost middle-of-the-road in its sad reflection on the death of love. The long vocal lines, sung in Lightfoot’s sonorous light baritone, unfolded over his superb guitar picking and the gentle swell of Nick DeCaro’s strings. “I will never be set free,” Lightfoot sang heartbreakingly, “as long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.”

7 ‘Bird on the Wire’ – Leonard Cohen (1969)

A very different kind of Canadian folkie, Cohen was a generation older than the many singer-songwriters he influenced. He was also, first and foremost, a poet – something that won’t surprise anyone coming fresh to his uniquely wavering, a-musical voice. Arguably Dylan’s only male peer as a lyricist, Cohen warbled like a melancholy professor seducing a female student. ‘Bird On The Wire’, inspired by a long period spent in Greece, was his simile-strewn plea for forgiveness and redemption, sung starkly over basic acoustic guitar, sweet strings, and an almost subliminal Jews’ harp.

8 ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ – Kris Kristofferson (1970)

Nashville singer-songwriter-actor Kristofferson so loved Cohen’s ‘Bird On The Wire’ that he asked for its opening lines to be inscribed on his tombstone. Adapting Cohen’s dispassionate delivery for his own rootsier vocal purposes, Kristofferson was the first of a new breed of country singer-songwriter: hip, literate, Dylanized. A hit for Janis Joplin – who changed the gender of the song’s protagonist – ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ was a southern hippie anthem, a song of footloose lovers on the road. In its wistful longing for freedom (“just another word for nothin’ left to lose”), Kristofferson brilliantly caught the mood of dropout America at the tail-end of the Sixties.

9 ‘River’ – Joni Mitchell (1971)

Another Cohen devotee was Joni Mitchell, who had a brief affair with her fellow Canadian before upping sticks from Greenwich Village to Laurel Canyon in early 1968. Mitchell quickly became the queen of the L.A. navel-gazers, cementing her status with 1971’s soul-baring Blue. “I was at my most defenseless,” she said of the album’s sessions. “I guess you could say I broke down, but I continued to work.” ‘River’ jumped from the longing for a Canadian Christmas – its piano intro mimicking ‘Jingle Bells’ – to bitter guilt at pushing her lover away. “I’m so hard to handle,” Joni sang, “I’m selfish and sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I ever had.” A landmark of the new confessional style.

10 ‘Old Man’ – Neil Young (1972)

Jackson Browne said the L.A. singer-songwriter movement began with the first solo albums by Mitchell and her Canadian compatriot Neil Young. With 1971’s After the Gold Rush the ex-Buffalo Springfield guitarist established himself as the definitive patched-denim troubadour, the lone wolf of LA’s Topanga Canyon. 1972’s Harvest took him still deeper into the comforts of country rock and brought him a No. 1 hit in ‘Heart of Gold’. But the album’s best track was arguably this song of identification with an elder, a remarkable song for a man who was then just 24 years old. “I’m a lot like you,” Neil pleaded on the heart-meltingly lovely chorus, “I need someone to love me the whole day through…”

11 ‘Song to the Siren’ – Tim Buckley (1970)

Jeff’s dad took his cue from the jazzish folk of another Tim [Hardin, a proto-singer-songwriter], and his music became increasingly experimental as the decade turned. ‘Song to the Siren’, based on the tempting of Homer’s Odysseus, was the most accessible song on the daunting Starsailor, offering the sheer beauty of Buckley’s anguished voice over diffuse, ambient guitar chords. If he emerged from the same Orange County folk scene that produced Jackson Browne, Buckley was never part of the canyon confessional set, and was in any case something more than a singer-songwriter – a sonic explorer, a wayward improviser, a highwire daredevil.

12 ‘Late for the Sky’ – Jackson Browne (1974)

Browne himself was more orthodox and cautious than Buckley: no wild jazz improvisations for this fresh-faced angel-poet, who was at the heart of LA’s singer-songwriter community. There was a piercing, ardent honesty in Browne’s songs of love and loneliness, the greatest of which was this title track from his 1974 masterpiece. Over patient, stately piano chords and glistening guitar fills, Jackson sang of the sad demise of an affair: “Such an empty surprise to feel so alone.” As the song built slowly to its desperate climax – “How long have I been sleeping?” – the grief of his imminent loss becomes palpable.

13 ‘That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’ – Carly Simon (1971)

Singer-songwriters didn’t come more middle-class than Carly Simon. Nor did their songs come more bourgeois than ‘That’s The Way…’ Over her own gorgeous melody – one worthy of Carole King, a clear influence – Simon sang Jake Brackman’s lyric about settling down and “raising a family of our own” as Russ Kunkel’s drums boom behind her. Kunkel was drumming the night Simon played L.A.’s famous Troubadour club and met James Taylor – the man with whom she would settle down and, yes, raise a family.

14 ‘Tangled up in Blue’ – Bob Dylan (1975)

“I don’t write confessional songs,” Dylan said ten years after the release of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. But there’s little doubt that this album, Dylan’s first truly great work in over half a decade, was at least part-inspired by the pain and guilt of separating from his wife Sara. In that sense the album’s majestic first track ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ followed the lead of singer-songwriters such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, sneaking autobiographical fragments into its poetic flow. The urgency of the emotion was sustained right through the seven verses, Dylan’s voice breaking in places as he revisits watershed moments in his courtship and marriage.

15 ‘Angel from Montgomery’ – John Prine (1971)

Hailed at the start of the new decade as one of several purported “New Dylans”, Illinois-born Prine was no less indebted to Kris Kristofferson for his singer-songwriting style. In ‘Angel from Montgomery’, recorded for his debut album at Memphis’ American studios, he assumed the persona of an ageing southern woman surveying her past youth and dismal present: “Just give me one thing I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” The song was a remarkable feat of creative empathy framed in a crisp country-soul package, with Prine’s thin, smoky voice embedded in an organ-drenched arrangement that’s equal parts Muscle Shoals and The Band.

16 ‘American Pie’ – Don McLean (1971)

McLean was a semi-obscure upstate New York folk singer when, out of nowhere, his eight-and-a-half-minute précis of rock’s rise and fall streaked to No. 1 and stayed there for four weeks. For all its over-familiarity, ‘American Pie’ was genuinely moving and haunting, with McLean’s tenderly fragile tenor voice floating over easy-rolling piano and drums. From the image of Buddy Holly’s “widowed bride” through its allusions to the Beatles and the Byrds to its angry evocation of the Rolling Stones at Altamont, the song remains one of pop’s most ambitious epics and – Madonna’s 2000 cover version notwithstanding – a high-watermark of the singer-songwriter genre.

17 ‘Rocky Mountain High’ – John Denver (1973)

For sheer numbers of records sold, the bespectacled folkie born Henry John Deutchendorf, Jr., was probably America’s most successful singer-songwriter in the first half of the ’70s. A winsome MOR alternative to the Neil Youngs and James Taylors, Denver had a smilingly sunny disposition that stemmed from his love of mountains, rivers, and trees. ‘Rocky Mountain High’, driven along by strumming guitars and mandolins, was a hymn to the beauty of his adopted Colorado. Following 1971’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, the song is an eco-acoustic classic.

18 ‘Me and Julio Down By the School Yard’ – Paul Simon (1972)

Simon was another product of New York’s Brill Building era, going on to reinvent himself as a folk minstrel – and even trawling the mid-’60s folk circuit in the UK. After he and Art Garfunkel parted ways in 1970 he became one of the more eclectic singer-songwriters of the ensuing decade, dabbling in reggae, gospel and – on ‘Me and Julio Down By the School Yard’, his second solo hit – a folksy kind of calypso. Breathlessly playful, ‘Me and Julio’ detailed an unspecified transgression in Simon’s native Queens. “What the mama saw,” Simon whooped joyously, “it was against the law…”

19 ‘Cat’s In the Cradle’ – Harry Chapin (1974)

Chapin was a New York singer-songwriter who’d paid the standard ’60s folk dues before doing time in L.A. as a documentary filmmaker. Having broken through with 1972’s ‘Taxi’, two years later he hit No. 1 with ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’, a cautionary tale sung in Chapin’s most gruffly paternal voice. In it a father fails to make time for his son, only to find years later that the roles are reversed. Based on a poem by Chapin’s wife Sandy – written shortly before the birth of their son Joshua – its message continues to ring out loud and clear in our ever-more workaholic world.

20 ‘Piano Man’ – Billy Joel (1974)

Long Island boy Joel made his first mark with this self-referential singer-songwriter staple. Drawing on his stint as cocktail-lounge attraction “Bill Martin” in L.A., ‘Piano Man’ depicts the singer’s clientele as they drown their sorrows to standards such as Erroll Garner’s ‘Misty’: “Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody/And you’ve got us feeling alright.” Sung in Joel’s characteristically strident high tenor, with his full-bodied piano taking center-stage in the mix, the song cracked the Top 30 and did much to establish him as a Stateside version of Elton John.

21 ‘Wild World’ – Cat Stevens (1970)

The former Steven Demetre Georgiou was already a pop star in his native England when the catchy ‘Wild World’ almost made the US Top 10 in the spring of 1971. A word of warning from a spurned and implicitly older lover, the song put Stevens on the American map as a UK singer-songwriter capable of holding a candle to the James Taylors and Joni Mitchells then dominating the music-press headlines. The usual ingredients – piano, acoustic guitar, muted percussion – provided the platform for Cat’s voice, which next to James Taylor sounded positively black.

22 ‘Love and Affection’ – Joan Armatrading (1976)

Though a number of female singer-songwriters rose to prominence in Britain in the early ’70s – from folk songstress Sandy Denny to pop princess Lynsey de Paul – it took a West Indian immigrant to seize the initiative as an important artist. With her eponymous Joan Armatrading album in 1976, said dame shook off her cult status and scored a UK Top 10 hit with the sultry and splendidly sexy ‘Love and Affection’. “With a friend I can smile,” Joan sang almost conversationally in the song, “but with a lover I could hold my head back/I could really laugh, really laugh…” Not exactly soul and not exactly folk, ‘Love and Affection’ was somewhere deliciously in between.

23 ‘Ol’ ’55’ – Tom Waits (1973)

California native Waits might have been out of step with his confessional contemporaries – his heart lay in the beatnik-and-bebop era of the ’50s – but his debut album Closing Time was a minor singer-songwriter classic. Opening track ‘Ol’ 55′ was one of his great early songs, a mumbly paean to a vintage automobile that painted a vivid picture of a young man rising from his girlfriend’s bed and heading home on the L.A. freeways. The country-rock feel belied Waits’ early steeping in that genre and seduced his labelmates the Eagles, who covered the song on their 1974 album On The Border.

24 ‘Chuck E’s in Love’ – Rickie Lee Jones (1979)

For two very wild years Rickie Lee was Waits’ main squeeze, the pair of them wreaking alcoholic havoc in L.A. even as this sassy sketch of their mutual pal Chuck E. Weiss hoisted itself into the Top 5. Part funky Little Feat, part jazzy Joni Mitchell, part vixenish Van Morrison, ‘Chuck E’s In Love’ swung and sashayed as Jones’ knowing-little-girl voice swayed and harmonized with itself. A cocktail of rootsy acoustic guitar, muted electric piano, rhythmic pushes, and soulful horns, the song only gave up its secret in its last lines: “Chuck E’s in love with the little girl who’s singing this song/Chuck E’s in love with me…”

25 ‘Carmelita’ – Warren Zevon (1976)

Like Waits and Jones, Warren Zevon was a fish out of water in L.A.’s sunkissed paradise. Embedded in the incestuous Laurel Canyon music scene he may have been – the Eagles’ Glenn Frey sings harmony on “Carmelita” – but Warren wrote songs that acknowledged a very different Los Angeles: the city of downtown and East L.A., of Mexican junkies copping on Alvarado Street. “I’m all strung out on heroin,” Zevon sings, “on the outskirts of town.” Not exactly Linda Ronstadt, you’d think, except that she covered it and several other Zevon songs to boot. Doubtless Linda loved the subdued mariachi feel of the song, complete with its sublime David Lindley guitar solo.

© Barney HoskynsiTunes, October 2008

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