The Popular Songwriter

By: Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University) //

In November 1975, Barry Manilow hit the top of the Billboard “Top 40” chart with “I Write the Songs.” Singing from the perspective of Music itself, the song’s protagonist “write[s] the songs that make the whole world sing.” Although that line has made headline writers happy for the past four decades, it has also come to represent Manilow’s professional career as a songwriter. During the 1960s and 1970s, Manilow composed some of the most singable music imaginable: commercial jingles. Among his best-known compositions—including songs such as “Copacabana” and “Mandy”—is State Farm Insurance’s memorable “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” jingle. Although Manilow’s career as a recording artist was over by the early 1980s, his songs continue to “make the whole world sing,” if only for seconds at a time.

We often assume that the artists who sing to us in concert, on broadcasts, and in recordings are performing their original works. Consequently, we talk of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” or Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as if they composed the songs. More often than not, though, these musicians are performing a song that was written by one or more professional songwriters, the vast majority of whom are known only to the most devoted of fans, popular music scholars, and music publishing executives. Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” for instance, was penned by Shel Silverstein, a poet, essayist, and cartoonist who is perhaps best known for such imaginative children’s books as Where the Sidewalk Ends. Silverstein wrote dozens of chart-topping hits during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including country artist Loretta Lynn’s 1971 “One’s on the Way” and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” (1972). And although Franklin’s recorded performance of “Respect” certainly demonstrates a significant degree of personal ownership over the song, it was composed—and originally recorded—by Stax Records recording artist Otis Redding, whose 1965 male-voiced take on the song provides a drastically different interpretation than Franklin’s better-known version.

In the first decades of the twentieth century—during the so-called “Tin Pan Alley” era of popular song composition—audiences were well aware of the existence of songwriters, including Irving BerlinGeorge and Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter, among others. With the rare exception of such star performers as Bing CrosbyFrank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, the recording and radio artists who performed these songs were often less well-known than the songwriters whose work they performed. By the beginning of the rock and roll era in the mid-1950s, however, many of the most popular singers in all mainstream genres were performing works by professional songwriters whose names were listed in small print on 45-rpm singles or long-playing album sleeves. For example, although Elvis Presley was considered to be one of the leading performers of the early rock and roll era, several of his early hits were written by lesser-known songwriters, including his 1956 hits “Heartbreak Hotel” (Mae Boren Axton/Thomas Durden), “Blue Suede Shoes” (Carl Perkins), and “Hound Dog” (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller). Several of these songwriters—including Neil Sadaka, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, and Barry Mann—worked in the Brill Building and other facilities on the 1600 block of New York’s Broadway, where they created hundreds of songs for a wide range of popular musicians, often writing in several styles in the process. One needs only to look at the songwriter credits on recordings by the Drifters, the Crystals, and even the Beatles to see the influence of the Brill Building songwriters on the transatlantic popular music landscape.

Although professional songwriters continued to dominate popular music in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, the era also witnessed the rise of the so-called “singer-songwriter.” As the name suggests, singer-songwriters perform the songs they wrote for the public, both in concerts and on recordings. Influenced by the urban folk revival movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the first singer-songwriters—including, most notably, Bob Dylan—often accompanied themselves on acoustic instruments, such as guitars and pianos, much like the medieval troubadours. Consequently, like the musicians profiled in Kendra Leonard’s essay, “Song of Myself,” many spectators and critics considered their songs to be more “authentic” representations of the performer’s own experiences than the more “manufactured” expressions of those musicians who performed other people’s compositions and used backing musicians to support their work. (Of course, closer inspection reveals that singer-songwriters such as Joan Baez and James Taylor frequently recorded with session musicians, as can be heard clearly in Taylor’s 1970 recording of “Fire and Rain.”)

Joni Mitchell’s 1969 studio recording of her original song “Both Sides Now” exemplifies the singer-songwriter ideal. She sings an original composition with only the accompaniment of her own guitar playing. 

Townes Van Zandt is widely considered one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. Although his professional recording career met with limited success, many of his songs—including “Tecumseh Valley” (performed here)—are still performed and recorded nearly two decades after his untimely death in 1997.

If you were to compare the songwriting credits on your favorite recordings from the 1980s and your favorite recordings from the past decade, you would notice that, in many genres, popular songs are now written by an exponentially larger team of contributors. In today’s increasingly litigious intellectual property landscape, songwriting credits are commonly granted to the producers who craft the song’s accompaniments as well as to the lyricist and composer of the song’s melody, recognizing the contributions of all involved parties and distributing shares of the revenue to each of them. For this reason, Taylor Swift’s 2014 smash hit “Shake It Off” acknowledges the contributions of three songwriters: Swift and producers Max Martin and Shellback. At the same time, other traditions of U.S. popular music continue to champion the lone singer-songwriter. Americana music, for instance, draws influences from the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as from the roots of American vernacular music, including especially the blues and country music. As the Americana Music Association’s 2014 awards demonstrate, singer-songwriters continue to play an integral role in the tradition’s identity.

Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit “Shake It Off” represents the new paradigm of commercial songwriting in the United States, granting songwriting credits to producers Max Martin and Shellback as well as to Swift herself.

In the twenty-first century, some genres of U.S. popular music still prize the seemingly unmediated creations of singer-songwriters. Americana musician Jason Isbell, for instance, spoke openly of his struggles with substance abuse and recovery in his 2013 album, Southeastern.

Songwriters are, in many ways, the most essential figures in the production of popular music in the United States, as they are the ones who craft the words and melodies that performers, session musicians, producers, and engineers bring to life. Attitudes toward songwriters vary widely from one genre to another and can tell us a lot of about the values that the fans of a particular genre hold. Furthermore, as the current practice of splitting songwriting credits among all contributing parties indicates, songwriting is implicitly linked to commerce, as the works that songwriters create are the raw materials of the popular music industry. By focusing on songwriting as a form of musical expression and economic activity, therefore, we can begin to develop a more nuanced understanding of popular music’s value at any given moment in time. As Manilow reminds us, creative people “write the songs that make the whole world sing.” It is our job to learn who they are and what they are trying to tell us through their work.

For Discussion

  1. Look up the credits for your favorite popular music on a reputable online discography (such as allmusic.com). Who received songwriting credit for these songs? Are they members of the band or the recording artist? Are they professional songwriters?
  2. Why do some fans of some genres of popular music prize the presumed authenticity of a singer-songwriter while fans of other genres seem not to care?
  3. What challenges might a professional songwriter face when composing for someone else? How might they negotiate these challenges?
  4. Can we apply the singer-songwriter concept to other traditions of music-making that feature solo musicians performing their own compositions and supplying their own accompaniments?

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