Music has always been a canvass for storytelling. Around the campfire, in the family room, the coffee shop, or anywhere people gather for entertainment. Stories in song served to pass along events, unite people with common struggles, share cultural experiences, and touch our souls.
Folk songs throughout our history told stories common to the American experience. Country and Western songs were more personal, they could tug at our heart, cry of lost love, take you on the road, recall a swinging Saturday night, tell you about being an outlaw.
In the 1960s, folk music got out of the smoky cellar and onto the mainstream stage. While AM radio played the boy-girl love songs, there was a growing undercurrent of kids beginning to look for meaning, something deeper than I want to hold your hand.
Bob Dylan might get the tag as the first singer/songwriter but he wasn’t. It might have been a traveling minstrel back in the old country. Nonetheless, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger and others laid the groundwork for what came next.
By the late 1960s, anyone with an acoustic guitar or could beat out chords on an upright piano were writing and playing their songs. They were doing what writers tell you to do, write what you know. Everyone has feelings, experiences and a perspective. You, can be a singer-songwriter. Many did, and they found a ready audience.
Gordon Lightfoot – Sharpening his songwriting and performing skills in the 1960s, Lightfoot broke through in the early 1970s with a string of popular soft rock songs: “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Carefree Highway”, “Sundown”, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, “Rainy Day People”. A Canadian, Lightfoot spend his early years as a folk writer, who dabbled in American country music. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s and signed with an American record company. He was in the early 30s when his first hit, “If You Could Read My Mind” arrived. Still performing regularly, Lightfoot turns 80 this year.
Carole King – Tapestry, released in 1971, was a phenomenon. Packed with soulful ballads and upbeat rockers, the albums sold more than 25 million copies and won four Grammy Awards. King has been around for years, mostly writing hit songs for other people. Tapestry was the perfect salve for the a generation searching in life and needing a soundtrack. King went on to record numerous albums in the decade but none were as successful. The album produced: “I Feel the Earth Move”, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”, “So Far Away”, “It’s Too Late” and “You’ve Got a Friend”.
James Taylor – The most identified with the singer-songwriter label, Taylor didn’t invented the soft rock genre, but he gets the lion’s share of the blame. He has written the majority of his recorded songs, “Fire and Rain” being the most famous. His songs were very introspective, based on his own sense of discovery, loss and insecurities. “You’ve Got a Friend” (written by C. King), “Country Road”, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Carolina in My Mind”, “Something in the Way She Moves”, “Handy Man” and “Mexico: were his biggest hits during the 1970s.
Jackson Browne – Wise beyond his years, Jackson Browne could dig deep into human emotion to channel pain and longing. “These Days” may be his most accomplished song, recorded by Glen Campbell and Gregg Allman, men who lived what Browne only imagined. With a voice that conveyed longing and the ache of life, Browne could touch a minor chord in all of us. “Fountain of Sorrow”, “Here Come Those Tears”, “The Pretender”, “Rock Me on the Water”, “Before the Deluge” were a few of his very introspective songs.
Jim Croce – His life was over before his career had started. Who can forget “Time in a Bottle”, “I’ve Got a Name”, “I Have to Say I Love You in a Song”, “Operator” or “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown”? He recorded his first big album in 1972 and died the very next year. He was 30 years old and even though he was starting to get songs played on the radio, he spent most of his 20s struggling, and turning some of his struggles into songs. The songs he gave us came from his personal journey. Gone too soon.
Harry Chapin – Like Jim Croce, Harry Chapin died tragically, as a young age. Chapin’s songs were stories. “Cat’s in the Cradle”, “WOLD”, “Taxi” and “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” were his biggest hits. Surprisingly, Chapin’s songs, sometimes long by radio standards, received a lot of airplay. Chapin’s strength was in his performing, giving life to his personal songs, although he released an album a year until his death. He performed tirelessly, giving a lot of his money to charitable causes. Ironically, it was on his way to perform that his car was hit head-on by a semi truck.
Paul Simon – First as part of Simon & Garfunkel and then as a solo artist, Simon wrote very introspective songs, which was why he wanted to sing them himself. In the 1960s, Simon could spin a tale delivered in under three minutes. Gradually, they became longer and more varied in musical style. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, “Duncan”, “Mother and Child Reunion”, “Love Me Like a Rock”, “American Tune”, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Something So Right” were his more famous early 1970s songs.
Billy Joel – His early albums were nearly all stories set to songs. “The Piano Man” being the most famous, but there were many others. From “Allentown” to “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” to “Goodnight Saigon” to “New York State of Mind” to “Captain Jack”. As his popularity soared, Joel moved toward more traditional songwriting but never abandoned wanting to tell a story.
Judy Collins – Whether it was folk or pop, one of her songs or interpreting someone else,
Judy Collins could amaze you with the softness of her voice or thrill you with her vocal reach, she could work a song like no one else. She spend years as a folksinger singing traditional folks songs before trying her hand at writing. Collins makes this list, less as a writer, and more as the way songs became hers. The Grammy winning “Send in the Clowns”, recorded by many artists, became popular because of her version. She inhabits the song.
Carly Simon – Simon wrote her own songs, sometimes with a collaborator, but the stories in her songs were hers. Very popular in the first half of the 1970s, Simon had a range and power that could ache on ballads or climb the ladder on up tempo songs. Songs like “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be”, “You’re So Vain”, “Haven’t Got Time For the Pain”, “Anticipation”, “The Right Thing to Do” were all deeply personal Simon-penned songs, and chart hits.
Neil Young – Much like Jackson Browne, Neil Young could deliver songs from a well of life not yet lived. His songs in Buffalo Springfield had a sensibility of American past, in muted Technicolor lyrics, usually delivered in his unsteady voice. As a Canadian, his bull’s-eye of lessons of the American West were remarkable. “Broken Arrow”, “Expecting to Fly”, “On the Way Home” and “Out of My Mind” are deeply reflective, written before he was 23 years old. Almost as poetic as Dylan, Young could turn an emotion inside out while describing it in images that simply amaze your ears and your heart. His late 1960s and early 1970s writing is beautiful. “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, “A Man Needs a Maid”, “Southern Man”, “Ohio”, “Sugar Mountain”, “Cinnamon Girl”, and “The Needle and the Damage Done” are Young classics.
Joni Mitchell – One of the finest writers of any era. Joni Mitchell inspired generations of boys and girls to pick up a guitar and use it to find their voices. Her early albums were simple in production, the focus was on her voice and her guitar or piano. She used her voice as her most compelling instrument in her phrasing and vocal ability. From “Woodstock” to “Both Sides Now” to “The Circle Game” to “Free Man in Paris” to “Big Yellow Taxi”, her songs could be introspective or make a statement. Mitchell never stopped evolving as her music became more complex and yet subtle, daring you to listen several times to hear something more each time.
Bob Dylan – The most famous of the singer-songwriters, Dylan’s lyrics were sometimes cryptic in meaning, and sometimes cryptic because of the way he sang the words. “Women are woolly”? Remember that from Bull Durham? Dylan is perhaps the most prolific writer in history, and while his style may change from decade to decade, Dylan has never stopped peeling the onion of life. Where do you start when you list Dylan’s story songs? “Girl From the North Country”, “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Hurricane”, “I Shall Be Released”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
There are many others who followed, who used their songs to paint stories that swept us along. Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley & Glenn Frey, Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagan & Walter Becker, Nancy Griffith, John Mellencamp to name a few.