One of the joys and satisfactions of rock music is being able to follow, and identify with, the thought processes of the artist, and chart their growth (or regression), and the fluctuating course of their personal fortunes and attitudes. This is easier when one is dealing with singer-songwriters.
The "singer-songwriter" genre can arguably trace its roots back to Delta Blues, or even further back to the days of wandering minstrels and troubadours, and the early days of rock n roll saw the emergence of such figures as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. However, if we are thinking in terms of the modern "rock" scene then, like so many things, it began with Bob Dylan.
Not only did Dylan make it viable and credible for people to express themselves creatively entirely through their own compositions and ideas, but he also laid down many of the ground rules, by giving validity to the notion of such views and observations being poured out in a challenging and poetic way.
The mental stimulation in absorbing the work of singer-songwriters is to a large extent in the concentration of the thoughts and interests of one person. This is not really possible in the case of groups and bands, even those whose members write tunes prolifically, because the message is often confused and fragmented, reflecting the diverse personalities and outlooks of the people who make up the ensemble, and the compromises made in the creative process. With a single creative engine, the message can still be occasionally confused and contradictory, but leaves the listener safe in the knowledge that this is the psyche of a single individual, with all its idiosyncrasies and foibles.
Although there have been great singer-songwriters in more recent decades, the "genre" enjoyed a golden age in the period from the late 1960s through to the mid-1970s, on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the foremost practitioners hailed from the folk movement, and folk's capacity for, and tradition of, storytelling and social conscience stood them in good stead in this new environment. Some of these figures achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne), while others had to be content with admiration from their peers, long-term influence or royalties from cover versions of their songs (Laura Nyro , Gene Clark, Tom Waits, Nick Drake.).
The zenith of the 70s singer-songwriter scene probably occurred around 1974, when several prominent artists released seminal works. Jackson Browne's "Late For The Sky", "No Other" by Gene Clark and Neil Young's "On The Beach" are just a few which instantly spring to mind. All different in their own ways, but each representing a kind of peak. "No Other" and "On The Beach" are arguably untypical of their architect's general output, and partly for this reason stand out all the more.
In the mid-1970s the lustre of the "confessional" and "introspective" genre faded. Most of what was there to be said had already been said, and the artists naturally began to branch out and explore fresh territory. The social climate was also less conducive to what some regarded as self-indulgent navel-gazing.
The appeal, though, of the singer-songwriter has never really gone away. The 80s saw the likes of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman achieve both artistic credibility and bounteous record sales, and people will always be receptive to the vulnerable and earnest person wielding a guitar, or sitting at a piano, pouring out angst, anger or regret.
Many of my most rewarding musical experiences of recent times have been in discovering the work of the great singer-songwriters of the past;the likes of Fred Neil, David Ackles and Jackson C Frank. The work of such artists remains piquant and stimulating, and is well worth checking out.
Whatever the caprices of musical favour, the singer-songwriter, in whatever form he or she takes, will never disappear.