I get a lot of razzing at gigs when the talk turns to ‘great singer/songwriters’. It seems an unspoken rule that certain stars in the firmament that cannot be denied. I dunno.
I have always enjoyed Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. Their songs were not only sincere but also profound. They also really ‘lived it’ so he’s got the built in ‘street cred’ that builds so many careers (think of rappers who have to prove their gangsta bona fides in order to get a deal.) Best of all? Both their bodies of work still sound very fresh to me.
The succeeding generations who have stood on their shoulders have, in my opinion, not fared quite so well. And I think there are some commonalities to their work that make their almost universal success so puzzling to me.
First of all, none of ’em can sing their way out of a bag. I mean seriously. Is there anything even pleasant in the vocal tones of Neil or Dylan or Leonard or Lou? I’m not saying they need to sound like an American Idol clone, but c’mon… would you care to listen to any of these guys sing Happy Birthday at any child’s birthday party? Probably not. Now I’ll grant you that Woody and Hank weren’t exactly American Idol crooners, but there is something just plain pleasant in the sounds of their voices–at least to me anyways.
‘But that’s not the point’, you say! They are poets and that makes it all good. Fine, I reply. Let them do readings at clubs dimly lit by hurricane lamps where people snap their fingers in approval. Yeah, man.
I will grant you that Dylan is a first class poet. Maybe one of the best of the century. So he almost is off in another category. In other words, I can almost forgive the arrogance he has in singing in public. On the other hand? Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim are great lyricists, but they have the good grace to give their work to people who can actually sing. No one thinks this work any weaker because of it. In fact, I find it much easier to enjoy music when performed well.
But then you move down the list and start wondering if the ability to sing poorly actually improves ones regard. In other words, is Leonard ‘deep’ because he sings so poorly? Hard to tell. Hard to tell. I give him big points for showmanship, that’s fer sure. Same with Lou. In fact, I think they’ve turned ‘dour’ and ‘sarcastic’ into high art. (Please look up ‘Dada’ in Wikipedia for some insights into both their schticks.)
Neil? Crazy Horse really influenced me. I acknowledge it’s Godfather-hood to all things garage/punk and grungy. But put the guy in front of a mic with an acoustic guitar and let me out the back way! In a funny way, he reminds me of my old boss Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion.) In the early days GK would sing in the odd comic bit. His bass/baritone added a bit of camp and a nice bit of colour. But at some point? I think he actually started believing he could sing. I say this because I have on many occasions run into Garrison Groupies–women who are totally enamoured of all things GK. Now? Mr. Keillor sings for real on the show. And since it’s his show? No one dares tell the Emperor that he has no pipes.
I think much the same happened to Neil. I think he got some success; because he has written some cool songs, and then it went to his head and his aspirations went from being a guy who’s voice served the song to ‘Rock Star Ego’.
It may be that when you have fans who think you’re ‘deep’,, they kind of lose their hearing in a selective sort of way. Once people like you? It’s as thoughÂ almost nothing you do can sound bad.Â And I mean literally ‘sound bad’.
It’s puzzling because, whether or not one likes my voice, I actually try to sound my best—the notes I sing matter to me.Â I wonder if these guys feel at all the same. Perhaps that’s what makes them them and me just, well, me.