From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Singer-songwriter is a term that refers to performers who write, compose and sing their own material including lyrics and melodies, often providing the sole accompaniment to an entire composition or song. A number of other well-known musicians may write some of their own songs, but are usually referred to as singers instead.
North America and United Kingdom
The origins of the singer-songwriter in North America can be traced back to folk singers who created original works in the folk music style. The best known early singer-songwriters include Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, along with members of The Weavers (Seeger performed solo and as part of the Weavers). These proto-singer-songwriters were less concerned than today's singer-songwriters with the unadulterated originality of their music and lyrics, and would lift parts from other songs and play covers without hesitation. The tradition of writing topical songs (songs regarding specific issues of the day, such as Lead Belly's "Jim Crow Blues" or Guthrie's "Deportees") was established by this group of musicians. These singers would lead rallies for labor unions, and so wrote many songs concerning the life of the working classes. This focus on social issues has greatly influenced the singer-songwriter genre.
The first popular recognition of the singer-songwriter in English-speaking North America and Great Britain occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s when a series of folk and country-influenced musicians rose to prominence and popularity. These singer-songwriters included Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, John Denver, Jackson Browne, Dave Mason, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, Nick Drake, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Bruce Cockburn,Harry Chapin, James Taylor, and Dan Fogelberg. People who had been primarily songwriters, notably Carole King, also began releasing work as performers. In contrast to the storytelling approach of most prior country and folk music, these performers typically wrote songs from a highly personal (often first-person), introspective point of view. The adjectives "confessional" and "sensitive" were often used (sometimes derisively) to describe this early singer-songwriter style.
While the members of rock bands of the era were not technically singer-songwriters, many former band members (including Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Peter Frampton and later Don Henley and Glenn Frey) found success as singer-songwriters in their later careers.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s the original wave of singer-songwriters had largely been absorbed into a more general pop or soft rock format, but some new artists in the singer-songwriter tradition (including Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Heard, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Cheryl Wheeler and Warren Zevon) continued to emerge, and in other cases rock and even punk rock artists such as Peter Case and Paul Westerberg transitioned to careers as solo singer-songwriters.
In the late 1980s, the term was applied to a group of (predominantly female) artists, beginning with Suzanne Vega with her first album selling unexpectedly well, followed by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang. Likewise, the success of Tori Amos in the United Kingdom led to her success in her home market. By the mid-1990s, the term was revived with the success of Canada's Alanis Morissette and her breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill. It had grown to encompass fellow-Canadian Sarah McLachlan, who started the Lilith Fair, along with other artists associated with that event, such as American artists Sheryl Crow, Victoria Williams, Patty Griffin, Jewel, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Merchant and Joan Osborne.
Also in the 1990s artists such as Dave Matthews and Elliott Smith borrowed from the singer-songwriter tradition to create new acoustic-based rock styles. In the 2000s, a quieter style emerged, with largely impressionistic lyrics, from artists such as Conor Oberst, Iron & Wine, Ray LaMontagne, Steve Millar, Jolie Holland and Richard Buckner.
Recording on the professional-grade systems became affordable for individuals in the late 1990s. This created opportunities for people to independently record and sell their music. Such artists are known as "indies" because they release their records on independent, often self-owned record labels, or no label at all. Additionally the Internet has provided a means for indies to get their music heard by a wider audience.