The singer-songwriter has become a genre only in the last decade, where we have witnessed a huge transition from its origin. It is rendered from a musical tradition that began around the 1940’s, with country singer-songwriter’s writers such as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and caught momentum in the 1960’s. A singer-songwriter writes, as well as performs their own material, often with an accompaniment of a guitar or a piano.
One can observe that the appeal of these artists is largely built on the cult of personality. The lyrics they pen are very personal, although at times masked by layers of metaphors and obscure imagery that are left to the listeners to interpret. The main concern for any singer-songwriter is the song itself, which is usually reflective, direct and honest, more than the actual presentation of it.
Singer-songwriters for the most part have evolved out of two genres: Tin Pan Alley pop and post-Dylan folk music.
The former category includes likes of Carole King, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, and Laura Nyro; the latter has notables such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. These quintessential folk singer-songwriters were at the height of popularity in the early 70’s, but over time the chain reaction they started with their writing led the genre to evolve, split and grow.
In the late 70’s, artists like Richie Lee Jones and Joan Armatrading were heavily influenced by the sound of the original singer-songwriters, as were Suzzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman in the late ‘80s. This resurgence of the style in the late 80’s led to a new popularity and exposure for a new crop of contemporary singer-songwriters.
Today we see artists who have put their own spin to the conventional singer - songwriter category. It has evolved from the musical tradition to not only a genre, but a genre with many sub-genres within it. Some of the successful singer-songwriters of the 80s 90s and 2000s include Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith to name a few.