Some Thoughts On The Singer-Songwriter Menace

by Mitch Gordon

From The Folknik July/Aug 1998

At a recent Celtic folk concert, I was chatting with the performer at the break, and I happened to mention that my wife and I perform singer-songwriter music and have recorded a CD. Well, this performer, with whom I'd been having a cordial conversation, turned away with a grimace and broke off the conversation without another word. I'd had no idea I was carrying a communicable disease.

Is current folk songwriting that awful or evil? It certainly provokes some strong reactions among traditionalists, or more often just gets avoided and ignored. Folk is not a well-attended music genre anyway, but contemporary songwriters draw even smaller audiences than other folk acts. Several times I have heard songwriters I admire tremendously playing to 10 or 15 people.

So what gives? I think the folk community does not support singer-songwriters for two reasons: (1) the personal (as opposed to political or historical) content in the music, and (2) commercialism. By personal content, I mean that original songs tend to speak about the songwriter's feelings and experiences; if you're not the touchy-feely type you may squirm in your seat. Make it funny, make it about someone in another century or another country, write about farming or fishing, and folk audiences are happy.

I take issue with this "sterilize before consuming" attitude about songs. True, you don't need to hear about how I learned to tie my shoes or how much I loved my first puppy. But our society already suppresses the expression of feelings.

In the folk community we come together to live in an alternative way, caring for one another and cleansing ourselves of packaged consumerism. We make music instead of having it fed to us. We dance instead of watching dancers perform.

Making our own songs about our own lives is part of the process of reclaiming our culture. It's important for songwriters to express what's inside in a truthful and meaningful way, and it's just as important that the rest of us listen and feel.

When the feminists in the 70's said "the personal is political," they meant that when enough women took control in their personal lives over language and birth control and who washes the dishes, profound social change could occur irrespective of the political system. And it did! The personal is political in music as well. Stories from our lives have value for others. Traditional cultures have shared stories for millennia. Stories have power. Couple a truthful, significant song with music that carries the listener into your world, and you can communicate very deeply-if somebody's listening.

As you can see, I don't put much stock in the "they're self-centered and whiney" take on folk songwriters. There's just too much of it that's profound and heartfelt to dismiss it like that. The argument that the music's too commercial, however, is a viewpoint for which I have some empathy.

Artistically, singer-songwriter music is on the cusp between traditional folk and commercial pop music. While they are shunned by folk purists, singer- songwriters are also being lured, quite deliberately, by the siren song of commercial success with mainstream audiences. One encounters songwriters' contests, local song-writer associations where your songs are critiqued, and that Mecca of commercial songwriterdom, Kerrville. For only a few hundred dollars, two weeks of your time (and several thousand insect bites) Kerrville offers "songwriters school," where you can learn how to write and promote songs that SELL. It's hardly any wonder that the folk community gets disgusted.

Here at home, singing circles and open mikes become competitive and selfish. Friends we've heard sharing simple, honest songs they've written start honing their craft for the ascent up the mountain of gold. They record expensively and on over-produced CD's. They move to L.A. or Nashville. They make the circuit and play at places where sometimes hardly anyone's listening. They disguise their origins and feelings, and edit their material for commercial acceptance. And for most of them, commercial success is unlikely. The road (all there is for most full-time musicians) is a hard life. So it's important to get some personal satisfaction-not just occasional attaboys from the music industry insiders- and not to write off your folkie friends. We'll still be there for you at the end, and Nashville/Hollywood won't.

The music-bucks folks and their apologists are full of advice on how to create and record your songs, and sell yourself and your music. Well, right here in this folk publication, are my recommendations on how to please us (and yourself) instead of them:

Don't get me wrong. This is not the folk police, and these are not rules and regulations. If your creativity says to do something unique, follow that muse. I treasure the work of Christine Lavin, Greg Brown and Cozy Sheridan, and these are clearly contemporary rather than traditional songwriters. What I am saying is please yourself first, please your friends and neighbors second, help the world a little, and the heck with the yellow brick road. Because it sure ain't real gold.

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