“Poet-Composers”

Art and Legitimacy in the Singer-Songwriter Movement

Authored by: Christa Anne Bentley

The Routledge Companion to Popular Music Analysis

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138683112
eBook ISBN: 9781315544700
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315544700-28

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Abstract

In 1968, New York Times critic William Kloman profiled newcomer musician Leonard Cohen, describing Cohen as a “poet-novelist-composer-singer.” Kloman declared that “this is the age of the hyphenate, a sign… that a renaissance is afoot.” 1 The renaissance Kloman observed was the beginning of the singer-songwriter movement, a growing circle of artists in the United States and Canada that cohered around a confessional lyrical style, acoustic musical accompaniment, and a vulnerable presentation of their songs. The moniker for this persona, however, did not emerge in the music industry until the 1970s. 2 Instead, in the early stages of this movement, critics described this new cohort of artists in varied ways, but frequently labeling the songwriters as “poets” or “composers.” For example, in a 1969 Rolling Stone review of Cohen’s sophomore album, Songs from a Room, critic Alec Durbo described the artist as a “singer-poet,” a designation he assigned to a new wave of artists who attempted “to reach a heart of meaning” and who performed by “pouring out [their] life before you.” 3 Writing for the Washington Post, Times Herald, Min S. Yee explained that newcomer Joni Mitchell was “less singer than songwriter, less songwriter than poet.” 4 In the Chicago Tribune, critic Robb Baker placed Mitchell on a list of the top “composer-performers” of the year. 5 An advertisement for Neil Young’s first solo album in Rolling Stone likewise proclaimed that “[it] is rather an underestimation to simply call Neil a songwriter. More accurately, he is a composer and a lyricist, and both his words and music are poetry.” 6 The early descriptions of these singer-songwriters reveal that critics perceived the music as high art more than popular song.

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