Singer Songwriter: Best Performers 1970s

Interesting facts on Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, James Taylor, Jim Croce and more...

The singer-songwriter genre might be best known from TV commercials selling musical hits from the 1960s and 1970s. It refers to a genre of music that came right after folk music. It usually has elements of folk and pop music.

The ability to tell a story in a song is a unique gift. Yet, some singer-songwriters are so skilled, listeners feel like they’ve read a book on the subject after listening to a song.

We’ve identified some of our favorite artists and performances from the 1970s in the singer-songwriter genre. Plus, we’ve added some interesting insights into the songs and the singers.

1.) Carolina on My Mind by Singer Songwriter James Taylor

By the time James Taylor was 21 years old, he had:

– Checked himself into a mental hospital for depression during high school. He stayed for 9 months.
– Been treated for heroin addiction.
– Suffered broken hands and feet in a motorcycle accident. (Think about the broken hands for a guitar player.)

He went on to win five Grammy awards, sold over 100 million records and be elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He continues to perform today.

Having gone through these experiences, “He sang with a conviction that other artists at his age didn’t possess,” said his manager.

Carolina On My Mind was written by Taylor while recording for Apple Records in England, and the song reflects his feelings of being homesick. This song is the unofficial state anthem for North Carolina.

2.) Taxi by Harry Chapin

Many folks know Harry Chapin from his other very popular song, Cats in the Cradle. And, while it was Chapin’s only number one song, many folks find Taxi to be not only its equal but maybe just a little better – despite only rising to #24 on the Billboard charts.

Memorable lyric phrasing includes:

You see, she was gonna be an actress,
And I was gonna learn to fly,
She took off to find the footlights,
And I took off to find the sky…

When Chapin performed the song on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the show was bombarded with so many phone calls asking for Chapin to return to the show to sing the song again, that show officials needed to respond.

Carson and his producer made it happen. The very next night, Chapin performed the song again. This was the first, next-night encore appearance in the show’s history.

In addition to his very successful singer-songwriter career – all 14 of his singles became hits – Harry Chapin might deserve even more praise for his humanitarian work. He won the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work after he died in a car accident.

3.) City of New Orleans by Singer Songwriter Arlo Guthrie

Arlo grew up singing in his jeans with Woody Guthrie as his father.

Recorded in 1972, City of New Orleans started with these lyrics:

Good morning America how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Originally written and performed by Steve Goodman, Arlo made the song a hit with his version. Goodman asked Guthrie to hear his song. Arlo agreed, but only if Goodman bought him a beer. The purchase was made, the song was sung, and Arlo agreed to record it. Good thing – it was his only top-40 hit (Alice’s Restaurant made top 100, but not top 40.)

Fans of Steve Goodman might know that he has another claim to fame. Perhaps his most popular song is “Go, Cubs, Go,” the Chicago Cubs anthem. It’s frequently referred to as the official Cubs victory song.

4.) Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry

How strong was the storytelling in Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry? Well, nine years after its release, Warner Bros. hired an author to adapt the story for a screenplay and novel.

The song opens with these lyrics:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day,
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay,
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat,
And mama hollered out the back door, y’all, remember to wipe your feet…

With little acoustic accompaniment, Gentry sings her song that centers on a family’s reaction to a suicide. The Tallahatchie Bridge is where the suicide took place and acts as the song’s hook.

Gentry was one of the first female performers to both write and produce her own songs. Eleven songs charted in the top 100.

5.) The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Singer Songwriter Gordon Lightfoot

The dreary opening to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is somber:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake, they called ‘gitche gumee’,
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead,
When the skies of November turn gloomy…

When Canadian singer-songwriter composed and performed the song, inspired by a Newsweek article on the ship’s sinking, he considered it his finest work.

Lightfoot took a few small liberties in creating the song for creative reasons. The ship was not actually headed to Cleveland. Detroit was its destination. But, despite Internet claims that the bell tolled 30 times, Lightfoot was correct in stating that the bell was rung 29 times, once for each crew member aboard the ship who died.

Some claim an additional bell ringing takes place at the end for all who have lost their lives at sea. But this was a practice that began after 1975.

6.) Sam Stone by John Prine

And, here’s another sad opening to a great song, Sam Stone:

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,

The song is about a Vietnam vet, who earned a Purple Heart medal, and dies of a drug overdose. The “hole in Daddy’s arm” likely refers to morphine or heroin addiction which was common among Vietnam War veterans.

Per Rolling Stone magazine, Sam Stone was selected eighth in a poll of the saddest songs of all time. Prine was discovered by Kris Kristofferson while performing at a folk revival in Chicago.

Kristofferson, another notable singer-songwriter, said that Prine’s songs were so good, “We’ll have to break his thumbs.”

Prine worked as a mailman and wrote and performed songs as a hobby. He was friends with Steve Goodman (see The City of New Orleans above.)

7.) Moonshadow by Singer Songwriter Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens (now named Yusuf Islam) wrote Moonshadow in 1970 and considers it his favorite song.

Growing up in London where street lights were plentiful, Stevens was surprised to see his shadow from the moon while on vacation in Spain.

Stevens said, “So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow. I thought that was so cool, I’d never seen it before.”

Islam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

8.) You Don’t Mess Around With Jim by Jim Croce

Although he died at the young age of 30 in a plane accident in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Croce left a very impressive musical legacy. Hit songs included: Operator, Bad Bad Leroy Brown, I Got A Name, Time in a Bottle, Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues, and I’ll Have To Say That I Love You in a Song.

In his debut single in 1972, the most famous lyrics from You Don’t Mess Around With Jim are:

You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
And you don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim

Hopper puts You Don’t Mess Around With Jim on before Eleven and he clean his cabin in Stranger Things.

The Singer Songwriter Genre

The musicians in this singer-songwriter genre typically wrote, composed and performed their own songs. And, usually, the sole accompaniment is a single guitar or piano (but not always). There’s beauty in its simplicity. Many of these songs continue to get lots of play because of their enduring popularity.

What do you think? Did we get it right? Who would you add to the list? What songs?

— Mike O’Halloran

Mike is an author, writer, and co-founder of Listcaboodle.


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