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The Evolution of the American Singer Songwriter

The Evolution of the American Singer Songwriter

In this article we will take a look at the evolution of the American Singer Songwriter from Robert Johnson to Woody Guthrie, to Dylan, to Townes Van Zandt, to Lucinda Williams, to the Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim and much in between. The Singer Songwriter has impacted virtually every American music genre because, after all, it begins with the song. Make no mistake, the singer songwriter, only armed with his or her instrument, provides the purest form of musical expression; poets whose rhythmic verse is put to music. It is music at its core; even with a band, the song is crafted utilizing more instruments.

For the purpose of this paper a Singer Songwriter is generally referred to as an artist who composes and performs their own music and may occasionally play in or lead bands. The singer songwriter genre itself includes both solo artists and bands who have an emphasis on lyrical content.

Gospel, Blues and Country

Gospel music was already present in the early 20th Century, The Fisk Jubilee Singers started in 1871 as an African-American a cappella ensemble to help provide monies for Fisk University and “toured” along the underground railroad. In the 1920’s and 1930’s the Dixie Hummingbirds and other “jubilee” or “hard gospel” quartets influenced all music of the time. Prior to the artists to the 1920’s Vaudeville and “Race Records” had sold in excess of a million records. However, this genre is excluded as that music is not considered Singer Songwriter based music.

During the 1920’s Blues was grown from African American spirituals, work songs and chants. Blind Lemon Jefferson, who is one of the earliest blues recording artists, wrote “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” in 1928. The rhythm is chant like and in the form of a call and response work song that echoed the hard life of the time.

Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you
Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you
There’s just one kind of favor I’ll ask of you

And the response:
You can see that my grave is kept clean

Also, during the 1920’s and into the 1930’s, A.P (Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter) of the Carter Family, the first family of Country Music, would travel to the small towns “finding” regional music of the South and re-creating that music for their radio show and records. One of their most popular recorded songs recorded in 1928, Keep on the Sunny Side of Life, has a quicker rhythm and provides a chorus in between the verses. Written in 1899 by Ada Blenkhorn; the music draws from Appalachia, Gospel, Folk.

The Fathers of Blues, Country and Folk

Robert Johnson’s recordings between 1936 and 1937 combine singing, guitar and songwriting skills that have influenced generations of musicians since. The pitch in his voice conveyed the emotion of his songs. His music was not completely repetitive and included guitar “riffs” that advanced Blues music. Blues at the time was referred to as “Devil’s Music” due in part to Robert Johnson’s own admissions that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.

During the same time period Hank Williams was creating music that would influence songwriting and country music forever. Like Robert Johnson, Hank’s personal and engaging lyrics and expressive voice drew in generations of fans.

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry… So Lonesome I Could Cry – Hank Williams

Woody Guthrie, best known as a “protest singer” who started the folk movement, was performing in the 30’s and recorded in the early 1940’s. With his guitar that boldly read “This Machine Kills Fascists” he sang traditional music and wrote of injustice. As a part of the Almanac Singers, who embraced communism at the time, their music was written to fight fascism, promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers’ rights. That collaboration included Pete Seeger, who to this day, is an iconic American Folk singer and activist.

Into the 1940’s music had been recorded and broadcast over the radio since the 1920’s. Musicians of the time have expressed personal pain, hardships and love. Music tapped into the social conscience, protesting against racism, labor and social injustices. Folk, Bluegrass, Jazz, Blues, and country music were becoming more defined as well as blending together to create more music genres.

In the 1940s the major strands of American music combined to form what would eventually be Rock and Roll. Blues artists from the south went north to work in auto factories and electric “Chicago” blues was being perfected by Muddy Waters. Jazz Bebop was made popular by Jazz greats like Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. Ballads mostly depicting personal love and loss were performed by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The war effort impacted music and gospel music was in what is now considered its “Golden Age.”

Rock and Roll

In 1951 Allan Freed, a disc jockey in Cleveland Ohio, broadcasts the phrase “Rock and Roll” to describe the multi-racial and multi-genre music of Blues, Country and Gospel. Lock up your daughters – Rock and Roll is here!

Remember, in the early 20th century it was considered sinful by many to play Blues music, Hank Williams was petitioned by twenty two preachers to never play “Two Faced Preacher” and much of the Folk music of the time was “Protest Music”. In many ways these genre’s produced dubious music. The racial tension of the time and the inter-racial aspect of Rock and Roll was hard to accept. Parents were fearful of and many prohibited their kids to listen to Rock and Roll.

Parents just didn’t understand, the youth of the time embraced Rock and Roll and music was now big business. The 7″ single was introduced in 1951, Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955 and in 1956 Elvis was shot from the waste up on the Ed Sullivan show. Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were popular. Rockabilly, R& B and Pop emerged.

The Birth of Rock and Roll was only the catalyst for the 1960’s, everything was about to change.


In 1961 Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) visited his bed-ridden idol Woody Guthrie, vowing to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple. As it turns out Dylan may be the greatest Singer Songwriter of all time.

By the 1960’s a new generation began to openly question the status quo, values of the past were not necessarily the values of the future. The Civil Rights movement was gaining strength, the Vietnam War was televised to American households, families had bomb shelters and protest was in the air. There was a combined freedom and accessibility to information and documented history that had never existed before. Expression was more pronounced and experimental.

Dylan’s music was markedly different than his predecessors and was part of the folk revival of the 1960’s. His music contained political, social, philosophical, and literary influences. Some of Dylan’s biggest influences were Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Allen Ginsberg and Nietzsche.

In 1963 a twenty two year old Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Songs had more meaning and affected people on more levels. Dylan’s, A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall was interpreted by many at the time to be symbolic of the possible Nuclear Fallout from the Cuban Missile Crisis – a claim that Dylan refutes.

To many the Singer Songwriter era began with Dylan. However, due to the constraints of this article I need to somehow move on. So, to summarize, Dylan considers himself a poet first, never compromising or content to perform within a specific style of music Dylan dramatically went electric at the Newport Folk festival and embraced phases of both Country and Gospel through his career. At the time of this writing Dylan continues to be relevant and is still creating music.

With the experimentation of music and expression of the 60’s new genres and styles of songwriting grew. The 60’s gave birth to the British Invasion, which was heavily influenced by the earlier blues records of the 30’s through the 60’s, Psychedelic Music, Soul Music and endless collaborations of musical experiences and styles emerged.

Through the 60’s the Singer Songwriter genre grew to include varying musical styles and forms of expression. Dylan’s call was answered by a new generation of Songwriters. Neil Young from Canada introduced a unique and highly personalized style that was both melodic and course. The Grateful Dead utilized songwriters like Robert Hunter to create masterpieces of the time and expose listeners to bluegrass, folk and blues. Crosby Stills Nash and Young created songs with harmonies that emphasized their lyrics. Tom Rush, Joan Biaz, Chris Smithers, Greg Brown, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger continued the tradition of pure folk music. Jimmy and Janis brought new levels of writing, composition and performance while the Doors pushed the envelope – right into the 70’s.


During the late 60’s and into the early 70’s one of the most prolific Singer songwriters of our time was creating hauntingly beautiful music in Texas. Townes Van Zandt devoted himself to the extremes he felt necessary to completely give himself to the music. Citing influences such as Lightening Hopkins, Dylan and Hank Williams; Townes created music that affected people on a highly personal level and was known for his songwriting above all else.

Mama don’t you worry nights approachin’
Theres a hole in heaven where some sin slips through
Just close your eyes and dream real steady
Maybe just a little spill on you
Dark don’t lie dreams come true
Could be a few will see you through………… Cowboy junkies lament – Townes van Zandt
Songs were now created from varying perspectives, influences and were told in different ways. In the beginning songs were literal and usually from a single perspective but over time perspectives (from where the song was speaking) changed. Abstract ideas and phrasings were used to convey meaning. The use of abstract lyrics in songwriting can be very powerful and personable as the listener can more readily personalize abstract idea or thought. A narrative writing style clearly defines; which, can either engage someone who is on that line of thought or disengage someone who sees or feels a different meaning from the lyrics.

70’s, 80.s & 90’s

During the 1970’s lyrical content became more important and influenced almost all music genres. Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Tom Waits, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, Harry Chapin, James Taylor, Carol King, Elton John (w/ Bernie Taupin), Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen, Gordon Lightfoot and thousands of others famous, infamous or unknown strummed out old, borrowed and new ways to express themselves.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s many Singer Songwriters had been absorbed into the Soft Rock music genre. Artists such as: Billy Joel Stevie Wonder, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Tracey Chapman, K.D Lang, Kate Bush and Warren Zevon, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt filled the airwaves with a more polished sound heavily influenced by the “album oriented” sound of the time. John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, Cheryl Wheeler Gandalph Murphy, Richard Shindell, Richard Thompson, Joan Osborne, the Cowboy Junkies and others continued to redefine the genre.


At the present time there is an abundance of established musical legends still performing and an emergence of new Singer Songwriters who have taken the genre to a completely new level. Artists such as Norah Jones, Mumford and Sons, Hank lll, the John Butler Trio, The Heartless Bastards, Jack Johnson, The Avett Brothers and Langhorne Slim write and perform with an honesty which has created a heightened emotional connection with their fans.

It has been said that ever kind of song has been sung and maybe it has, but as the times change so do the words, the phrases and the music. Here’s to finding your song!

There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those who don’t see it

When nothing is old deserved or respected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it……………

Head Full of Doubt- Road Full of Promise – the Avett Brothers