Friday, August 22, 2008

The Great Troubadours and their Albums

One category we haven't much talked about are the balladeers or troubadours. Some of these artists would be categorized as folk, some as country, some as bluegrass, some as folk rock, but they are certainly all on the penumbra of rock n' roll and deserve some discussion. These are our master story tellers and lyrical writers. Here is a list of some quintessential examples:

Recently honored precisely for these sorts of skills, Paul Simon has to be at or near the top of this list. To get a sense of his lyrical gifts checkout:

1) from the Simon and Garfunkel era--- the Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Bookends, and the Bridge over Trouble Waters lps
2) from his solo career there are many to mention--- the Rhymin Simon, Still Crazy after all these Years, Graceland, and most recently the Surprise lps.

Equally talented as a songwriter, singer in this sort of tradition is of course the late lamented Dan Fogelberg. The best way to sample his work now is the Portrait box set which has most of his classic tunes. James Taylor absolutely falls into this category, but since I have already done a blog post on North Carolinian musicians, I will just mention from his early work, Sweet Baby James, Shower the People, and from more recent years lps like Hourglass or New Moon Shine. These sorts of artists are quite intentionally continuing a tradition of folk music that ultimately goes back to English, Irish and Scottish folk music brought over by the immigrants to this country.

There are midwestern versions of these sorts of artists, for example some of John Mellencamp's work especially Scarecrow or my favorite Lonesome Jubilee, and several of the important more folk oriented albums of Bruce Springsteen belong in this discussion--- The River, Devils and Dust (and the recent tribute lp to Pete Seeger), and especially The Ghost of Tom Joad. Of course some of these artists were capable of doing straight ahead rock n' roll as well, but my concern is here with the more folk side of things. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead belong in this conversation when you think of lps like American Beauty or Working Man's Dead. If one wants a more urban version of a troubadour whose music was often stark and dark, and very influential in this whole sphere of music, check out Leonard Cohen.

Of course no discussion of this matter could even be undertaken without considering the overwhelming ouevre of Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan. In general, it is especially his early material that most would mention, and you already see what he is capable of in the Free Wheelin' lp. We could probably list ten lps, and notice that Bob has always been willing to push the envelope, dabbling in country briefly in the wonderful Nashville Skyline lp, or in more rootsy sounds like in his Time Out of Mind lp, and I would add that even his Gospel lps such as the marvelous Slow Train Comin' are essentially folk done in a Gospel mode.

Of the female troubadours early on Joan Baez had the best voice, but she was not the songwriter that Joni Mitchell was. Joan was at her best singing protest songs, and wonderful renditions of Bob Dylan tunes, but she did have some fine original numbers like 'Diamonds and Rust'. I love her tribute to William Blake lp on Vanguard, but unfortunately it and many other great old Vanguard lps are no longer available. The second best voice of this whole group of female troubadours was Judy Collins, no question, and I still get chills hearing her version of Amazing Grace. Wildflowers is perhaps her most lyrical lp. She did have some gift for songwriting for sure, but it was her versions of Joni Mitchell tunes (like 'Both Sides Now') that were most popular. I once saw her in the Kennedy Center in D.C. and she was just magical. To this I would add the wonderful work of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman who belong in this discussion.

Joni Mitchell was by far the greatest of these female balladeers, and she also had the most scope to her work, even going into jazz and jazz rock (listen to her Mingus CD or Court and Spark and the Hissing of Summer Lawns), but her very firstlp, simply called Joni Mitchell (produced by David Crosby no less)is absolutely lightning in a bottle and proved what she could do. The Both Sides Now and Blue lps were natural developments of her more folk side. Most of her most recent work has combined the jazz and folk sides of her interests and she has many wonderful more recent Cds-- Try for example Taming the Tiger. On top of all this, she was a wonderful painter as well. I even love her recent ventures into singing old classic show and jazz tunes.

There are of course many more male and female folk artists that deserve mention in such a discussion, people like Leo Kottke, Tom Rush, and on the more country side of things John Prine, especially his early stuff.

Of the country folk rockers several artists stand out above the pack--- Poco for example. Check out the lp with the Big Orange on the front, or their live in Boston CD, or their Good Feelin to Know Cd. Even more country was NRPS, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the later incarnation of the Byrds ala Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Jimmy Messina was essentially a country rock artists, and one can see this in the wonderful Loggins and Messina 'Sittin' In' lp. I saw them with full band at Duke, and they blew us right on out of the building with songs like Vahevala, or Peace of Mind, or I Don't Want Nobody but You.

If one wants to push a bit further one has to talk about artists who were influenced by blues and early rock, but were essentially country artists, like Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. Both of these artists had good gifts of singing and songwriting, especially Willie who is indeed mainly a ballad writer and acoustic guitar player in a Texas kind of mode.

If we move even further into Bluegrass then we have to talk about artists ranging from Doc and Merle Watson, to the more recent work of Allyson Krauss and Union Station, or Ricky Skaggs. Bluegrass Gospel is wonderful as well, as Allyson Kraus' early work with the Jones family shows. There are many more such talented folks, who could writer ballads and sing but this list will have to do.

If we look at all of this music from a broader perspective, what they all share in common is: 1) a commitment to acoustic music; 2) a commitment to quality song writing and close attention to the lyrics; 3) a commitment of harmonies; 4) a commitment to telling honest stories of real life. This is indeed blue collar music, vox populi, and it could be urban or rural in origins and focus but it reflected the wide open spaces of North America and the day to day tragedies and triumphs of ordinary people.


Marc Axelrod said...

This is another good, and fairly comprehensive list. Others worthy of consideration might be John Denver, John Hiatt, Neil Young, Jim Croce, Barry Manilow, Sarah McLachlan, Grant Mclennan, Tori Amos, Arlene Faith, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Dermot Byrne, and others.

You mentioned Joni Mitchell. I love Court and Spark, it's my favorite Joni cd. But not far behind is For the Roses, especially side one. I also like Blue.

You mentioned Mellencamp, and I enjoy his music very much. But lyrically, he falls short of greatness, he can't stand next to the others you have on this list. Then again, something similar could be said about Denver and Manilow ....

Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson probably belong on this list as well.

But no one on this list comes anywhere near Mr. Zimmerman. The album that breaks my hear the most is Infidels, because that record has the song "I and I," which relates Bob's journey from Christianity back to Judaism ....

Vince said...

Beautiful list of folk songsters. I would add Steve Goodman, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter-Paul-Mary, and John Denver as songwriters and singers.


Please take special note of a brilliant song about the theology of suffering by Joni Mitchell ...

"The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" from Joni's excellent 'Turbulent Indigo'. This is one of her best albums ever.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for these additions. I agree that Mellencamp is not a poetic lyricist. I am surprised no one has yet mentioned the early Cat Stevens stuff, especially Tea for the Tillerman, which is wonderful.


Michael said...


Ben Witherington said...

John Duchendorf (aka Denver) had a remarkable voice, the best voice in the Chad Mitchell folk Trio. Then he had a fine run as a solo artist. I learned to play Sunshine on my Shoulder early on in my folk playing days. He had a beautiful tenor. He also was pretty fun in the Oh God movies as well with George Burns.


Marc Axelrod said...

Woody Guthrie ought to be in this conversation. He wrote a lot of folk classics, including "This Land is Your Land."

What about Pete Seeger? You mentioned him in passing, but he could be a part of this conversation. And that Springsteen cd where he covered the Pete Seeger songs is one of my favorite Springsteen albums ever!

Aimee Mann is a very good singer-songwriter (she was the lead singer who sang Voices Carry in the mid 1980s). I love her cd "Whatever." "I'm with Stupid" is a good one, too.

Some would want Sam Phillips (used to be the CCM artist Leslie Phillips) on this list, but she hasn't grown on me.

Did you mention Ani DiFranco? I think she's very talented.

What about Carole King? I was eight years old when I heard "Jazzman" on the radio for the first time, and I developed a massive crush on her (without even knowing what she looked like, or that she was Jewish :)

But truth be told, after the LP "Thoroughbred," I kind of lost interest. Her lyrics started getting schmaltzy and maudlin, not nearly as arresting as she was on Tapestry and Writer.

Does Neil Diamond fit into this category?

Did anyone mention Leonard Cohen?

I highly recommend Paste Magazine. It's $20 for an annual subscription, and they send a fully loaded cd each month. As good as the magazine is, it's worth it for the cds alone. I got turned on to a lot of artists by sampling these discs. They have mostly adult contemporary music, with a roots rock sound.

Ben Witherington said...

She is at the U. of Chicago.


Marc Axelrod said...

I'm having an attack of conscience about my Carole King comments. I keep forgetting the public nature of these forums.

CK's 1994 concert cd is very good, and it features Slash on guitar for a couple of songs. Plus, I liked her theme song for the girls' baseball movie "League of Their Own."

Ben Witherington said...

I agree Carole King belongs in here, and actually I think her wonderful recent CD Love Makes the World stands up well with her earlier work, even with Tapestry in places.


john said...

Thanks to all for the mention of so many great artist. There is one
more that deserves the highest of praise, Van Morrison. His music over the years has incorporated folk, blues, rock, jazz, big band, country, traditional celtic, gospel, funk, r&b, soul, skiffle, and perhaps more than is coming to mind. I get a sense of musical nostalgia from listening to his music as if he is paying tribute to his own favorite artist.
He and Dylan's music over the years, has sparked my interest in other many other artist, such as John Lee Hooker and Woody Guthrie.

Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, Donovan, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandnt, Leonard Cohen, Norman Blake, Tracy Chapman, Kris Kristofferson all belong in 'the great troubadours'.

Ben Witherington said...

Of course many of you are right. There are wonderful British balladeers who deserve to be in the list-- Donovan, Gerry Rafferty in his folk days, Sandy Dennis, Lindisfarne, and so many more.


Living the Biblios said...

Can't leave out Bruce Cockburn

Tom Hinkle said...

Nick Drake is another one that hasn't been mentioned.

Crossroads ABF said...

I'm most fond of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, but I like it all when it comes to him. That Bootleg Series is comprehensive. I love his version of "Moonshiner". Beautiful. Even the liner notes had to mention that one. He actually sang it pretty.

As for Paul Simon, I like him sans Garfunkle. Love his Concert in the Park, and would say it's worthy of mention on some of the other threads and one I'd want if I was stranded on an island.

The Alt Country genre has some great songwriters. My favorite (and probably my second favorite songwriter to Dylan period) is Guy Clark. Check out "Dublin Blues" & more recently, "The Dark" & "Work Bench Songs". He wrote "Step Inside this House" of Lyle Lovett fame. I've cried at one show in my life and it was during an incredible songwriters workshop in Live Oak, Florida that included Guy Clark, Peter Rowan, Tim O'Brien, & Darrell Scott. Guy did "The Randle Knife", and I've never been the same.

As for lady Alt Country songsters, how about Gillian Welch? She's fantastic. I have two of her albums: "Time (The Revelator)" & "Soul Journey". I love her voice, and paired with David Rawlings' picking, what a match.

I saw John Prine years ago, and have liked him a lot. A little dark sometimes, but honest & witty.

Similar to the guy who said the Rolling Stones are overrated, I bring you James Taylor. I don't get it. He's got a pansy of a voice, and I think his writing sounds less than authentic. Not enough dirt & grime on it or something.

For whoever said Ricky Skaggs deserves mention, be sure to pick up his album with Bruce Hornsby. Lots of fun and has been getting tons of play in my CD player of late. Good night, and another great topic.

Vince said...


James Taylor "sounds less than authentic"? "not enough dirt"? I suppose it is personal taste, but it is his voice that gives him success beyond a folk niche. He is one of the few singers that can do a cover on an old hit and make his cover more famous than the original ("Up On the Roof", "You've Got a Friend", "How Sweet It Is", "Handy Man").

I was at a James Taylor Concert where James's brother, Livingston, sang a solo song after intermission. Livingston has a very credible career as a New England Folk musician. Half way through his song, James came out and joined Livingston. I was astonished at the clarity of James' voice over Livingston's good voice.

I agree! No dirt in James's clarion voice. His tenor is sweet baby James.

Crossroads ABF said...

Vince, I agree it's a matter of taste. That's what I meant when I said, "I don't get it" with regard to James Taylor because I don't. There's no denying his appeal to most people, but where it concerns the folk genre, give me the dirt & grime everytime.

lukegrifpa said...

Don't forget Harry Chapin.