Stephen Foster (1826-1864)
Today, he’s likely the only name on this list that isn’t a household name, but with hits that include “Oh! Susanna,” “Camp Town Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” his music is surely known by the vast majority of music lovers, even as we near the 200th anniversary of his death. While the influence of his songs alone can’t be ignored, Foster is best remembered for what he means to the industry as he is, according to most, the father of American songwriting itself.
Much of Stephen’s life could only be described as nearly unbearable. He suffered from alcoholism for the majority of his rather short life, dying after in a hotel at age 37 with only 28 cents in his pocket. In addition, much of his success came on the massive popularity of minstrel theatre, a fact which seemed to trouble Foster as much during his life as it would his fans a decade or so later. Because of this, he constantly struggled with the fear that he was creating low art. In many ways, Stephen Foster was also the father of the troubled young artist archetype which would come to be exemplified by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morison.
His feelings aside, however, his work will forever be held in the highest esteem as the work of the man who single-handedly forged the American popular music industry into existence. His memory has faced some racial controversy in the past few years, but may historians have pointed out that, relative to the culture of his time, Foster was quite generous and supportive of people of color. Though he lived a hard and depressing life, history will forever remember him as a legend and that, better than any single song or work, sums up the true power of a wonderful songwriter.
The Beatles (1960-1970)
The Beegee’s are often called “The Beatles of Disco,” The Ramones have been called “The Beatles of Punk,” and a few different groups, Wu Tang Clan and NWA most notably, have vied for the title of “The Beatles of Rap.” The truth is, however, that all of these titles are foolish because there never was and never will be a group like The Beatles.
No one will ever captivate an entire nation the way The Beatles did upon arriving in the United States. There were massive advancements made to live sound technology solely so that The Beatles could be heard over the deafening screams of their fans. According to most people lucky enough to have attended these early shows, the advancements were not successful. One massive change that the band made to the songwriting world was writing their own music. The writing team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is one of the most prolific of all time.
An even more direct line can be drawn, however, to the explosion of album-centric writing which took over the 1970’s and lead to the most lucrative decade in the history of the music industry. Following the near constant frustration of loud fans drowning out all of their live performance, The Beatles chose to distance themselves from the touring world and become a studio band, spending all of their time crafting massive albums. Their seminole 1966 effort, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is widely considered the first concept album and would inspire the likes of Pink Floyd, The Doors, and many more. Until The Beatles came on the scene, a “good” rock song came in around three minutes, featured a good hook, and got a lot of radio play. The Beatles encompassed what should’ve been three decades worth of genre evolution within a vigorous ten year span and likely changed the face of rock and roll more than any artists before or since. There will never be another Beatles.
James Brown (1933-2006)
Possibly the most overlooked artist on my list, James Brown’s impact on the industry just doesn’t receive nearly the respect it deserves. He’s often referred to as the King of Funk and the Godfather of Soul, titles which he certainly earned, but which seems to sell Brown extremely short.
James himself began as a particularly energetic R&B vocalist, gaining notoriety for fiery performances and a passionate vocal. He would go on to reach massive success and acclaim as his sound began to morph into something all his own. Upon the release of his hit single, “Cold Sweat,” he had become the King of Funk and forever changed the musical land scape forever. His sound was beat driven. It was something you could only feel, not count. He was, in many ways, the first artist who’s music focused heavily on the beat itself, laying the ground work for rap music, which would soon dethrone rock music as the dominant stream of the American popular music. This is why James Brown, and specifically his drummer, is the most sampled artist of all time.
What makes Brown especially important in this sense is his involvement in this musical development. Where most band music, say that of The Beatles, must be attributed to the collective, James was also renown for his constant creative control when it came to his band’s performances. When James Brown stepped on a stage or into a studio, it was truly his creation which was on display, and it was his creations which forever altered the course of music history. It seems to me more than likely that, without Brown’s influence, rap music and the rise of African American music in the mainstream could never have happened.
Bob Dylan (1941-)
The only member on this list who is still actively working, Bob Dylan will make the shortlist of nearly any well versed music listener’s Mount Rushmore. His catalog includes records like The Times They Are A-Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, and Love and Theft. This very long list of albums, only a highlight selection from his nearly 40 studio releases, is one of the most accomplished in all of music history.
He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received the presidential medal of freedom in 2012, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the only musician to ever do so. Beyond this, he has 11 Grammys and, perhaps most importantly, it would be virtually impossible to assemble even a small group of famous musicians who weren’t heavily inspired by Dylan in some way or another. Even many infamous artists from the 90’s, during the rock renaissance, site Bob Dylan as a massive inspiration.
Unlike the other artists on this list, Dylan was not able to hide behind long instrumental passages. Instead, he utilized a simple strophic scheme and basic instrumentation so that his lyrics were easily heard. What makes Dylan special is that he never failed to show up. He was a young, small man with a powerful creative voice, and just like his hero Woodie Guthrie, he never shied away from speaking his mind. When the time came, during the American Civil Rights Movement, Bob Dylan was there. And when the time kept coming, the Vietnam War in the 70’s, AIDS and income inequality in the 80’s, drug epidemics and disillusionment in the 1990’s, economic collapse and the rise of far right identity politics in the 20th century, Bob Dylan was always there to show us the undeniable power of three chords and the truth. He is, more so than anyone else in history, a testament to the art of songwriting.