The Fifth Element #46 The Contest Results

5 Great Art Songs of the Rock Age:
The 12 Winning Entries

Well, that certainly was something!

To refresh memories: In my February 2008 column I asked readers to submit their lists nominating The 5 Great Art Songs of the Rock Age.

My own list was:

1. "If You Could Read My Mind," Gordon Lightfoot (1969).
2. "Aja," Becker and Fagen, Steely Dan (1977).
3. "Fountain of Sorrow," Jackson Browne (1972).
4. "Hallelujah," Leonard Cohen (1984).
5. "Wysteria," Dan Fogelberg (1972).

This write-in contest generated more than twice the number of entries of the previous one, which had solicited lists of pieces of music thought to be necessary for Musical Cultural Literacy for Americans (in the April 2007 issue)—more than 120 entries.

The lists shook out along the expected bell curve: some lists were spot-on, and challenging to boot; most had something to say for themselves; and some were coming from somewhere else than I had been when I put the contest together.

Judging was very difficult. There were far more than 12 great lists. And boy, am I glad I limited it to five songs each! One note: I ranked the lists by their total impact upon me, so I did not attempt to limit or eliminate any song-choice duplications among the winning lists.

I think that when there were what I perceived to be problems, in many of those cases, the root of the problem was that perhaps I had failed to hit people over the head hard enough and often enough that what I was after was examples of the songwriter's craft of writing songs, and nothing else. Songs, as songs. Nothing else.

In a way and in cases, the process became a microcosm of many audiophiles' compulsions to over-think and to over-analyze and to impose extraneous conditions. The best entries were those that seemed to me to be the result of a process where someone read my rules, took the rules at face value, did not try to think over, under, or around them, made a list of five great art songs of the rock age, and then perhaps reviewed their music collection and refined things a bit: Done.

Some people started out by announcing that they were going to impose upon themselves restrictions I never intended to. OK, but the standards by which lists will be judged will be mine, not yours.

Other people started out with analytical concepts that are foreign to the idea of the contest. I was a lot more receptive to a well-chosen list of one-hit wonders or obscure artists than I was to a list that starts from the (arguable at best) premise that Bob Dylan was the "best" songwriter of the Rock Age, and therefore a list "had to" include a Bob Dylan song, and by the same reasoning a list "had to" include a Simon and Garfunkel song, and on and on. Nope! Not me!

The competition was not about assessing the relative importance or influence of songwriters, it was only about identifying great songs. Case in point: "Blowin' In the Wind."

In terms of sociology, "Blowin' In the Wind" was arguably somewhat important, even viewed on a world-history scale. In terms of music history, again, arguably, it was somewhat influential. But as far as the craft of writing a song goes, "Blowin' In the Wind" stumbles out of the starting gate and doesn't get very far after that.

"Blowin' In the Wind" is a folk song, and among folk songs it belongs to the subgenre of protest songs. Even the most superficial analysis reveals that "Blowin' In the Wind" is repetitive, both in words and in music. Its music (based on a Negro spiritual) covers a limited compass. Its melody is conjunct rather than disjunct. Its tonality is plain vanilla. There are no surprising harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic ideas. It's a bumper sticker, set to borrowed music.

None of this is surprising, when you remember the utility of such a song lies in its being easy to remember, and easy to sing by untrained singers, or, more precisely, haphazardly-led ad-hoc groups of untrained singers—at the barricades. "Lush Life," it is not.

As songs—as distinct from as cultural artifacts—"Gentle Annie," "Shenandoah," and "Red River Valley" have nothing to worry about—let alone "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," which is not an anonymous folk song, but rather John Jacob Niles' proof that he could write a song that didn't end on 'Do,' yet nobody would notice.

If "Blowin' In the Wind" is a great song, then perforce "Dominique" ("Doh-muh-neeka-neeka-neeka") also must be a great song, for the exact same kinds of reasons. (One revels in the image of countless cigar-chomping Jewish music-biz execs in late 1963, not realizing the Beatles were tuning up in the wings, barking into a telephone "Find me a singing nun—yesterday!" and then slamming down the phone. Alas, one does not revel, years on, in the poor creature's and her lesbian lover's jointly suiciding with barbiturates and alcohol. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.)

If the contest had been about a songwriter's influence rather than about the specific qualities of five specific songs, one certain winner would have been Mickey Newbury—still (as far as I know), the only songwriter ever to have songs in the Top 10 on four different Billboard charts at the same time (three #1s and one #5).

Kris Kristofferson ("Me and Bobby McGee") once said that he had learned more about songwriting from Newbury than he had from anyone else; Waylon Jennings and all the other 1970s Nashville "Outlaws" owed most of their musical ideas to Newbury (and also to engineer Wayne Moss). Newbury's encouragement and influence was decisive not only for Kristofferson, but for Townes van Zandt as well.

So, Mickey Newbury: as influential as all get-out. 90% of what you hear on your local country-music radio station stands in his debt. But, problem is, as much as I admire Newbury, I could not think of one specific song that deserved to push any of the other songs off my list. "San Francisco Mabel Joy" was a potential Coulda Binna, that's all.

All that's just a long way of saying that I was unswayed by the argument that a songwriter's fame, success, or influence upon other songwriters makes any particular song great. Bob Dylan may have written a great song or two, but "Blowin' In the Wind" is just not a great song—as far as the art of songwriting goes. Not even a good one, in my view. Down there with "Let There Be Peace On Earth" and other bible-camp ditties.

It should not need stating, but I guess it does: Just because a song was important to you at some time in your life, does not mean that it is a great song. If you lost your virginity while listening to a Peter Frampton song on a car radio, that does not make Peter Frampton a great songwriter.

Harry Chapin's "Taxi" does tell a story, but the music is a bit treacly and the words are a bit squishy—just another self-absorbed Boomer, in my book. "Taxi" lacks the critical distance and the self-awareness of the great songs. As well as lacking anything truly outstanding in the way of words and music. Just a nice hook, and a nice job of falsetto singing (by someone else) on the bridge. Oh, yeah—the falsetto lyrics are by Sylvia Plath—I hope her estate is getting paid.

In contrast, on the strength of "Night Moves" alone, I'd unhesitatingly call Bob Seger a great songwriter, because: he wrote a great song. One of the most distinctly American great songs of the Rock Age, by the way, and a phenomenal production and recording job as well. "Night Moves" is on a decisively higher level of songwriting craft than "Blowin' in the Wind" and any number of other Dylan songs.

"Night Moves" has it all: a complex point of view, dramatic action within the telling of the story itself, self-awareness and self-doubt, and rich layers of music, evocatively supporting the unfolding of both the story and of the self-awareness. A faint echo of "Be My Baby" ("a song from 1962") both mocks and comforts.

If Van Morrison had written "Night Moves," nobody would think it was his worst song. (I know—Morrison would not have written a song mentioning cornfields in the Midwest, or a 1960 Chevrolet.) Critic Greil Marcus' considered estimation of "Night Moves" simply was to quote one phrase from Lincoln's "First Inaugural": "The mystic chords of memory." In comparison, a lot of Dylan's output strikes me as one-dimensional nothingburgers, way past their sell-by dates.

Surprises? You bet.

The first surprise was that I expected at least a dozen all-Beatles lists, and I didn't get even one. Here's a stellar all-Beatles list I threw together, in not much more time than was required to type it:

1. "Eleanor Rigby"
2. "She's Leaving Home"
3. "In My Life"
4. "Here, There, and Everywhere"
5. "Yesterday"

Not enough? How about:

1. "Something"
2 "Norwegian Wood"
3. "And I Love Her"
4. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
5. "I've Just Seen a Face"

But, as I said, I was surprised by the relative lack of Beatles songs. Either people thought that that would be shooting fish in a barrel, or, they may feel that those songs have not stood the test of time as well as I have.

Richard Thompson has his fans, in some numbers. Good for him. Thompson has written some great songs. I received as many Richard Thompson nods as I expected to get Elvis Costello nods—but didn't. (That also applies to Van Morrison.)

Warren Zevon has his fans as well. I think that Zevon was acerbically clever ("Poor Poor Pitiful Me" is a classic in its genre) but I also think that most of his songs are not art songs. I consider "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" more of a border ballad, in the same way I consider Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" to be a border ballad rather than an art song.

I am quite prone to esprits d'escalier, and soon after sending in February's column, I was second-guessing my own list. Janis Ian's "At 17," and Carly Simon's "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be": are they more finely-crafted songs than Dan Fogelberg's "Wysteria"? Argh. For sure, "Long Long Time," as sung by Linda Ronstadt, is a great "singer's song," but that isn't what the contest was about. Stop obsessing, John. What's done is done.

One final word. I do not pretend previously to have heard every song that was submitted. My method of judging was that if I was strongly opposed to one song on a list, that killed the entire list, and I went no further. If I was unfamiliar with every song on a list, I used online sources or the public library to try to get enough of a listen to as many as I could.

It was a great and interesting contest, thanks for all the entries. The winning ones follow, in no particular order.