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Songwriters have long performed their own works, but the concept of “singer-songwriter” music as a genre developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Editors Katherine Williams and Justin A. Williams present an overview of the tradition, starting with its roots through the present day. They discuss its origins and practices in the United States and in a selection of countries around the world.
The Companion is in five parts: “Establishing a Tradition,” “Individuals,” “Men and Women,” “Frameworks and Methods,” and “Global Perspectives.” The contributors hail from the United States, Britain, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, and, in one case, Japan. Most are academically affiliated as educators or doctoral candidates (at publication), with interests that encompass English, anthropology, and sociology, and the expected music-related areas such as musicology and theory. Katherine Williams contributes an essay as well; her co-editor Justin Williams does not. [End Page 271]
The editors set a formidable task for themselves and their contributors. Although those who love and perform popular music will recognize examples of the genre when they hear it, the term “singer-songwriter” is a slippery one to define. Tim Wise describes the singer-songwriter as a person “who composes and performs his or her own songs, typically to acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment” (Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the Worlds, vol. 8 [London: Bloomsbury, 2012], 430–33). The editors settle on this definition, which is intentionally broad and allows for a wide range of musical styles to be discussed.
Such an expansive definition can lead to questionable subject choices and omissions. Why completely omit people such as Harry Chapin and Tom Paxton, and mention others such as Leonard Cohen, Cyril Tawney, Paul Simon, and Donovan (Leitch) only in passing? Why focus on German lied composers but ignore the songs of John Dowland? No single book can cover every important singer-songwriter or aspect of the genre, especially with a global approach, and the editors could expand the scope of this book in a subsequent edition or as a second volume.
Part I, “Establishing a Tradition,” begins with David R. Shumway’s “The Emergence of the Singer-Songwriter,” which traces the singer-songwriter phenomenon in the United States in the late 1960s. According to Shumway, these American singer-song-writers created extremely personal songs, even when the lyrics were not specific. He makes a strong case for James Taylor as the first songwriting performer to bare his own emotional or psychological state in his music. Shumway dismisses the genre’s roots in the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, although performers like the aforementioned Chapin and Paxton, are equally “singer-songwriters” and “folkies.” Still, Shumway points out how the genre developed from a specifically personal approach to a more generalized “authentic individual expression” (p. 19).
“Singer-Songwriters of the German Lied,” by Natasha Loges and Katy Hamilton, introduces readers to composers they may not otherwise know, especially women composers including Corona Schröter, Luise Reichardt, and Emilie Zumsteeg. The authors’ hypothesis that lieder served as prototypes of the singer-songwriter genre is plausible but a slight stretch. They focus on lesser-known but fine composers over the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Hugo Wolf, none of whom were known for performing anything but the piano parts of their own lieder.
Mark Finch’s “Bill Monroe, Bluegrass, and the Politics of Authorship” centers on the genesis of one song, “Uncle Pen,” and questions surrounding its authorship and copyright. The article is interesting but seems tangential to the book’s singer-songwriter concentration. More on point is Allen F. Moore’s “Singer-Songwriters and the English Folk Tradition,” which explains components of twentieth-century folk song such as locality, humor, politics and, especially, compassion and personal experience, and compares the use of these components by a variety of folk singers.
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