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The Spectrum Of Great Songwriters

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously separated writers and thinkers into two basic categories – Hedgehogs and Foxes. He took this from an ancient Greek saying: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing.”

As Berlin saw it, Hedgehogs – like Dostoyevsky, Nietsche, Ibsen – see life through the lens of one defining idea. Foxes – such as Shakespeare and James Joyce – draw on many experiences and don’t boil the world down to single idea.

Like all categorizations, these are loose and shouldn’t be taken as too confining, especially when it comes to great artists. One temperament is certainly not inherently better than the other. But lately I’ve been thinking about songwriters in a similar way, and Berlin’s interesting and useful framework came to mind.

Some great songwriters (‘foxes’), and there aren’t many who do this extraordinarily well, write or wrote all kinds of songs – or at least all of the kinds of songs it was possible to write in their era (can’t expect Irving Berlin – no relation – to have written a Hip Hop song).

This category of writer might include Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Bob Dylan, John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Billy Joel… writers who write across stylistic boundaries and stick their songwriting nose into almost any genre.

Then there are great songwriters (‘hedgehogs’) who, though writing with variety, have a narrower stylistic range and tend, though not always, to stay in their home genre yard(s) – such as Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Bob Marley, Jagger/Richards, James Taylor, John Fogerty, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Springsteen, Eminem… I could go on; more of the greats are closer to this category than the previous one.

I’d also make a kind of third category; one that could arguably include some of the writers in the last one. This’d be for writers who display a phenomenally broad range while still working mostly within certain genres.

Steven Sondheim wrote for Broadway shows in a Broadway style but… look at the variety! Stevie Wonder wrote mostly R&B but…! Prince – R&B and Rock…! Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell write their unique kind of songs but…!

The categories above are more accurately portrayed as a spectrum of great songwriters… with Irving Berlin, Dylan, Lennon & McCartney – writers who wrote pretty much every kind of song there was or is – at one end of the spectrum and writers like Chuck Berry, Bob Marley, Buddy Holly – who wrote unforgettable and deeply influential songs in their own stylistic area(s) – at the other. And everybody else somewhere in between.

(There’s not enough room to include all the songwriters who deserve to be mentioned in this discussion! Think about it, and please understand my omissions.)

Why does any of this matter? Why was I even thinking about it?

It’s because over the last year or two I’d gotten very focused on writing songs that felt more like ‘mine’. That were maybe less derivative and genre-based and more in my ‘style’, whatever that may be.

Nothing wrong with that. But then, on the other hand, just recently I thought about writers with a wide range of musical interest who just wrote whatever kind of song they were moved to write, not worrying about ‘their’ style, trusting that their identity would emerge through the song and its quality. And I was inspired by that too.

You think Bob Dylan stops to worry if what he’s writing is a ‘Bob Dylan song’?

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

Bob & John

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4 responses to “The Spectrum Of Great Songwriters”

  • I think it’s worth stopping to think about what makes a “great song”. For me one of the criteria is a song that seems to just keep on coming back, generation after generation, perhaps in a variety of musical styles. For me that is a sign that a song has somehow found it’s way into our mass consciousness in some way.

    There unexpected examples from all eras, and this perhaps makes Anon the greatest writer of all. Think for instance of Whisky In The Jar! Gershwin’s Summertime is an obvious one. And there are some unexpected ones too : ever hear Richard Thompson sing “Oops I Did It Again”? It really works, and makes me think that this one might stay the course.

  • That’s a great post. I’d put the Boss more in the Stevie Wonder/Prince category – he’s a hell of a Tin-Pan-Alley type tunesmith who started out doing jazz-related stuff and has experimented along the lines of his folk orchestra (although I guess he didn’t write the songs for that.).

    Also Bowie in that category. I now realize, after all these years, and after seeing the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, that Bowie, even more than our beloved ‘60s bands and performers, is my favorite. Why? He lasted so long, and it was mostly great: Blackstar at the end was a masterpiece. His songwriting was so beautifully varied, it manifested everything from American soul to his friend and one-time collaborator Lou Reed to those years’ electronic music influences (like Brian Eno) to…I always suspected it…Anthony Newley. He did it all: writing, producing, performing, design. And he brought theater and serious film (including his acting) to rock.

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