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Lamenting the end of the true 'singer-songwriter'

Loudon Wainwright III

Ross Halfin

At Massey Hall earlier this week, Jackson Browne gave a casual yet graceful performance, ending it with Before the Deluge, a song about the endings of innocence and eras. "And in the end they traded their tired wings, for the resignation that living brings/ And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow, for the glitter and the rouge."

The song dates back to 1974's Late For the Sky album, a record with the title-track admission that "for me some words come easy, but I know that they don't mean that much." The crowd at Massey wouldn't agree with him, and neither would the millions who bought and believed his records.

Mind you, in the late 1960s and the 1970s, words were coming easy. The DVD Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, released earlier this year, documents the age of the Carolina-minded James Taylor and the natural woman Carole King, along with the Los Angeles music scene that fostered Browne and so many others.

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A newsreel clip tells of the wandering Woody Guthrie minstrels of the 1950s, and the evolution of that persona: "The itinerant singer is suddenly box office." The so-called singer-songwriter - it is an ever-evolving term - acquired mansions, ones with rooms for guitars and wall space for gold records. "There was a time when James Taylor was sort of the archetypal hero," remembers Rodney Crowell, the Nashville songwriter. "They were selling beaucoup of records, and making a lot of money."

That time is over. When was the last time you heard of the "new Dylan"? Taylor Swift is referred to as a singer-songwriter, which reduces the term to its simplest and most meaningless definition. Yes, she sings (passably), and, yes, she writes songs. But where is the wit? The poetry? The self-awareness? The commentary? Where Browne saw "the evil and the good without hiding," Swift is all eyelashes and no eyes.

"If Taylor Swift is a singer-songwriter," says Bruce Cockburn, "then I'm something else." Cockburn, the folk-rock icon who currently tours the country, has just released Small Source of Comfort, surely one of his best yet. The songcraft and ideas expressed are soulful and sophisticated, a hallmark of another era. "We're all the children of Bob Dylan and his contemporaries," says Cockburn. "I think the age of the troubadour has come and gone."

Loudon Wainwright III, one of those children of Dylan, isn't so sure. "There are still singer-songwriters, I imagine, who are writing great songs," he says, speaking in advance of a pair of shows next week at Hugh's Room in Toronto. "And people still want to come out and see and hear it."

Though Wainwright says he hasn't got his finger on the pulse of the music business, he's aware of at least two young artists: Montreal's Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, his children with the late folkster Kate McGarrigle. He must know that the younger generation of singer-songwriters don't thrive like the young Turk troubadours of old - icons such as Browne, Dylan, Taylor and King. And he must know that the sublime talents of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell (and the later wave of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and John Mellencamp) are not as visible as they once were. Someone like the brainy American troubadour Josh Ritter has a world of talent, a bulging song satchel and charm to burn, but will he have a box set waiting for him when he's 64?

Wainwright III does. The new 40 Odd Years packages a career of frank, self-deprecating and wry tunes by an artist who had major labels bidding for his services at the turn of the seventies. Today, the big record companies aren't looking for the new Dylan or even the new Wainwright - they're looking for the new Jay-Z.

"A songwriter in 1968 who would have been a songwriter in 2008, they're going to be a rapper," says Cockburn. "They're going to be an Eminem."

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But few rappers - poetic, acerbic and topical as they may be - put out songs for the ages. There are no melodies to carry the words and to embed them firmly into our memories. Wavin' Flag, by the Somali-Canadian dust-footed philosopher K'naan, is an exception in a mainstream music world dominated by big beats and forgettable pop. It's a jungle out there, just as much as it was in 1971, and you have to wonder where the young lions are.

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