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Celebrating Great Songwriters

Posted March 6, 2013

by J. Barker

I read a statement about songwriters a few weeks ago and found myself automatically agreeing with it. Then I thought about it a little more, and realized it was wrong. The statement was something like, “Artists need songwriters like songwriters need artists.” Yeah, that sounds right. Day and night, hot and cold, yin and yang, right? You can’t have one without the other. But….wait…have we been swayed into undervaluing the significant creation a songwriter creates? I love recording artists. But I’ve come to realize, a great artist must have a song, but a great song does not necessarily need an artist.

If great songs are legitimately dependent on artists, how do we explain some of the famous songs popularized before the 1900’s, and before such things as recordings? Songs like “Red River Valley” and “The Streets of Laredo” were created in the later 1800’s and passed around the western frontier. “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” was first published in a book in 1894, but not recorded until 1927 by the Sandhill Sixteens. Who? “Dixie” was written by a northerner in the 1850’s for blackface minstrel shows in New York, but was popularized in the south during the Civil War. It was not recorded by an “artist” for another 50 plus years. And does anyone know who the artist was behind “America the Beautiful”?

In another corner of history, some of the most popular gospel songs of today became known without artists, through what were called “annual convention songbooks”, which were very prominent in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Songwriters would write songs to be included in that year’s convention book and groups of people around the country would meet to sing through all of the songs in these books. The publishers peddled the books, and the most popular songs would spread throughout the country. Some of today’s gospel standards like “I’ll Fly Away”, “Heavenly Parade”, “Give The World A Smile”, and “Turn Your Radio On”, became classics through these convention books…. without recording artists.

So many of us in the music industry tend to let our attention be easily diverted to the fresh sound of the day, the new artist, the cool recording technique, the marketing focus, the hype, the sales, and how many views. But, under almost every one of these musical moments that we get excited about, there is a great song. Dig a little deeper, and you may also find…a great songwriter.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame recently announced its 2013 inductees, who are Tony Hatch, Mick Jones & Lou Gramm, Holly Knight, J.D. Souther, and Steven Tyler & Joe Perry. These writers, according to a Billboard article, will join previous recipients like Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Sam Cooke and John Lennon. Hall of Fame chairman Jimmy Webb said in a release, “Each of our 2013 inductees has been responsible for captivating the world with their creativity for decades, serving up a rich variety of songs for our global soundtrack.” As we look back at the history of the great songwriters and their songs, we could really say they contributed to our “historical soundtrack”; that of the American culture, or more so, the soundtrack of global society. These songwriters are the authentic artists of our time.

While there are millions of songs, there is a much lesser number of great songs, and even less of a number of great songwriters. These are the true creators. While I have a lot of respect for artists, unless they are also songwriters, an artist’s primary role is the interpretation of something that already exists. Songwriters create that “something” out of nothing. Songs can exist without artists, but artists cannot exist without songs.

We can’t always follow a great song back to find a great songwriter, but we can always follow a great songwriter, and find great songs. I believe these noble creators fit into the definition that Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, “Outliers”, where he suggests that the key to high level success in any specific field may take 10,000 hours of practice, work and study. While I’m sure there are exceptions to this idea, when we identify truly great songwriters, most of them have invested that amount of time in work, sweat, study, rejections, and developing their craft. Those are the ones who should be saluted, and studied, and respected.

While artists can be said to be “born with” a singing talent, I would argue that songwriters are not born to be creators. Ever thought about how easily we can be impressed with a 13 year old who has a wonderful singing voice, but hardly ever truly impressed with a song written by a 13 year old? They haven’t lived, they haven’t experienced life, they haven’t put in their 10,000 hours. They haven’t yet matured into skilled creators.

Let’s remind ourselves, especially those of us in this business of music, that the old cliché is true. It really does begin with a song…or further, it begins with a songwriter. And the great ones should be recognized for the contributions they have made. The music industry literally would not exist were it not for them. Perhaps in some way we can communicate to them our words of affirmation for their words (and music) which add so much to the fabric of our global society’s soundtrack.

Have you hugged a songwriter today?

John Barker

ClearBox Rights, LLC

“One’s lifework, I have learned, grows with the working and the living. Do it as if your life depended on it, and first thing you know, you’ll have made a life out of it. A good life, too.” – Theresa Helburn

© 2013 John Barker. All rights reserved. Information contained in this Blog is of a general nature and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice. Any reader of this Blog who has legal matters related to information addressed in this Blog should consult with an experienced attorney. This Blog contains no warranties or representations that the information contained in it is true or accurate in all respects or that it is the most current or complete information on the subject matter covered. John Barker is President and CEO of ClearBox Rights, LLC.

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