Continuing the discussion I opened in the introduction to Jody Stecher (on great singer-instrumentalists, Matt said:
i’ve been pondering this ‘great singer-instrumentalists’ question a lot lately and then i read your post. just wanted to pitch in a few thoughts and a couple additions to the list:
-aretha franklin is an underrated piano player.
-yes on nina simone
-memphis minnie; some find her voice annoying, i love it. it is also worth appreciating the level to which she could outplay many of her male contemporaries.
-jelly roll morton had a fantastic voice. i’m sure you are familiar with alan lomax’s informal recordings of morton singing, accompanied by only his own piano playing. there is even a very moving a capella track, ‘tricks ain’t walking no more’ included. the four volume set is one of my favorite things to listen to of all time.
-i can never decide which i appreciate more: the incomparable banjo and twelve-string guitar playing or the incomparable singing, of karen dalton. if you haven’t yet heard the recently issued recordings of her 1962 live performance taped in a denver bar (effectively doubling the amount of karen dalton material available), i highly recommend it. it’s just her, no band, and it is unreal.
-gary davis could be a very effective singer at times.
-it is easy to forget that jack bruce is a phenomenal bassist because his playing is so upstaged by clapton’s guitar and by his own singing, though he did need the support of a band.
-dave van ronk, as you mentioned, is a shining example of a great stand alone singer-instrumentalist.
-big mama thornton was a surprisingly virtuoso harmonica player. you can see it on youtube.
-little richard? i’d say he accomplished most in his singing and style innovations, but he’s a terrific piano player if you listen for it.
-on the flip side, ray charles’ abilities on the piano are clear, but is he a good enough singer to qualify? i do remember van ronk, in his autobiography, praised charles for his phrasing.
now, the question i’ve arrived at next is whether there are any great singer-instrumentalist-
anyway, most of the folks on my list and did not write much original material, with the exception of morton, charles, little richard, and some of the blues players.
it is tough to measure the originality of the blues lyric because so much of it is sort of picked and chosen from an existing blues vernacular. i think there is a difference between elaborating on a standard and writing your own new song. after all, the idea of the songwriter is a fairly modern concept. also, in blues many of the lines are throwaway, some totally indiscernible. in my opinion the expressive power and artistry of the blues lies within the sound of the music more than its lyrical content.
morton’s words pretty much follow blues and minstrel show formats, but i’d say he is pretty original. many of his songs even start to have topical references (i.e. ‘i heard buddy bolden say’).
ray charles wrote some good songs, but i hesitate to call them great. for me, he lapses in and out of an overwrought sentimentality and/or preachiness.
we all know that little richard’s words are hardly poetic masterpieces. although, considering it, ‘a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom’ is a pretty awesome construction.
back to blues.. i was saying that the lyrics are sometimes rather indistinct from one artist to the next and fail to match the music in expressiveness. however, there are certain songs where the words alone do send a chill to your toes– geeshie wiley’s ‘last kind word blues’ come to mind. son house and skip james were both extremely adept with imagery. charley patton stands out to me as someone who did awesomely strange and interesting things with words, which taken with his crazy ass singing, creates one of the most unique marriages of form and content around. so it’s a tricky question.
in my opinion, in general, it wasn’t the early blues masters who did the best writing, but the later ‘new negro’ and harlem renaissance poets who used the form to arrive at some truly great works. then, somebody like taj mahal comes along and sets a langston houghes poem to music, bringing it back full circle.
back to the question at hand.. is there anybody who can equal, say, leonard cohen in lyrical content, match the imagination and mastery of the instrument achieved by gary davis, and sing as evocatively as billie holiday? i can’t think of anyone, but who knows what the future holds?
i guess it’s unrealistic to have an everything-man. afterall, culture is a shared thing.
i’m no scholar, just a young and an enthusiastic listener, and this is my personal take on things. i didn’t set out to write such a long and sprawling comment, so excuse my somewhat scatterbrained notes..
also, i just want to say that i really, really like your journal. the actual download links definitely take a backseat to the extensive content and photos you share. keep it up.
Well, first of all, thanks for your well-thought thoughts, Matt!
I agree with pretty much everything you say. Some of them had even entered my list a year ago when I started thinking about the subject, but I forgot about them at the time of writing the article. Karen Dalton was stunning; Memphis Minnie was top-knotch; Charley Patton was insane, and his greatness was obscured by the overwhelming amount of surface noise on the recordings; you’re right about Little Richard, and Ray Charles was part of my original list. I hadn’t really considered Aretha’s piano playing, nor Big Mama Thornton’s harmonicizing, but I trust your judgement. Odetta was a fantastic singer who could definitely hold her own on guitar, but though distinctive, I never thought it was something to write home about. Likewise with Jelly Roll’s singing. Gary Davis could be effective, that’s a good word – not great, I’d say, but could be quite moving. Contrawise, Bob Brozman gets an ‘A’ for effort, but he always sings with affectation, and it just isn’t natural. On the other hand, while Robbie Basho’s singing didn’t sound natural, it was actually quite amazing – even more so than his guitar work, in the opinion of John Fahey, who had great taste in singers even though he sang like crap. Jack Bruce was indeed a great bassist – a jazz bass player I know has nothing but respect for the man. That same player pointed out what a great bass player Paul McCartney is, and I’d have to concede that he’s a great singer as well, even if he lapsed into oversentimentality when not balanced by Lennon.
Which brings us back to the subject of singer-instrumentalist-songwriters. McCartney was a great songwriter in tandem with Lennon, like Fats Waller was great in tandem with Andy Razaf. Dave Van Ronk wrote a couple of great songs like ‘Sunday Street’, but a couple does not a great songwriter make. Son House could turn the simplest, most clichéed lyrics and drive them into the center of your heart (or gut), but that still doesn’t really enter into the songwriter category. Peter Rowan has written some absolutely timeless songs (Land of the Navajo would probably be enough to secure his place in immortality), and he’s a one-of-a-kind singer, and he’s at least a very good guitarist, if not a great one. Of course, he’s usually surrounded by other, even better instrumentalists (Clarence White, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe…), so his playing usually serves as ‘great rhythm guitar’. Check out the Muleskinner posts in the archives if you’re interested.
But now that I’m thinking about this subject again, it strikes me why these people are so rare. You see, the concept of singer/songwriter/instrumentalist is mostly a 20th Century invention. Most of the traditional musics of the world are divided into two broad categories: ballads and dance music (with a few others, such as devotional music, trance music, and classical music). Music for dancing generally didn’t have singing, and the ballads, while sometimes instrumentally accompanied, was rarely of great musical value or danceability. Original songwriters or composers of distinction were quite rare; and it was not necessary that they be great at singing or playing, since it would be mostly others who played their works. It was really the early blues musicians who brought the separate disciplines of singing/playing/composing/songwriting together with great skill for the first time in western music. And as it happened, this coincided with the birth of recording, and so the age of the virtuoso was born. It wasn’t until the Weavers, the Beatles, Kweskin Jug Band, Planxty, etc, that you started seeing groups who wrote & arranged their own material, played with great skill, and sang really well.
Anywho, those are my thoughts at the moment. I invite you all to add to the discussion!