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Musicians of the 1960s: 21st Century Relevance and Respect

Leonard Cohen: Folk Poet Supreme - Rama
Many of those singer-songwriters, performers who used talents to launch careers four decades ago, can still speak with weighty voices to today’s youngsters.

Jack Madani’s Pop and Rock Music in the 60s: A Brief History gave a concise account of the main artists, the movers and shakers who led up to the explosion of 60s’ music. Starting with the roots of rock and roll, before the decade began, right up to the early 70s, when the dream began to unravel.

Many stars who shone, particularly in the late 60s, are no longer around for whatever reason. Their brightness has dimmed. Death took Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and John Lennon, for example. Who knows what they would have achieved musically if they had lived?

Others are still doing gig circuits, cashing in on their back catalogues to appeal to the nostalgia markets, and why not? Some such have new musical contributions to make, possibly politically and culturally, such as Pete Townsend of The Who and Ray Davies of The Kinks who re-recorded many of his 60s’ pop hits with the Crouch End Festival Chorus in 2009. A small band of others are legends whose new work is still eagerly anticipated because they are relevant in the early decades of the 21st century.

Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen: Folk Poets

Often bracketed together by critics and commentators as folk poets, singer-songwriters, Dylan and Cohen were nonetheless, fundamentally different. Stephen Scobie, in Canadian Poetry 33 (Fall/Winter 1993) in a piece called ‘The Counterfeit Begs Forgiveness’ argued that if Dylan was the greatest song-writer of the age, ‘Leonard Cohen is still the only name that can seriously be mentioned in the same breath’.

Both Jewish in origin and associated with different religions as influences (Dylan’s Christianity; Cohen’s time as a Buddhist monk), both were arguably linked to political writing to some degree. Dylan denied he was a protest singer, but commentators still use his 1960s’ work, including A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Oxford Town, Maggie’s Farm, Blowin in the Wind, Hurricane as examples of political performance. Cohen’s 1964 poetry collection, Flowers for Hitler, wove a strong subversive/political theme throughout.

In his book Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll (2004), David Boucher took Cohen’s own view that ‘poetry is a verdict rather than an intention, meaning it is others who bestow the title poem or poet’ to argue that both Dylan and Cohen are lyric poets. Both have been praised from time to time as less than wonderful singers, but in the totality of singing their own songs and performing, or others doing it for them, there is little argument that they are great singer-songwriters.

Cohen’s Hallelujah has been covered by enough artists to make it a classic. Dylan has had literally hundreds of his songs covered by others in so many genres. Being covered by others is a mark of respect (or simple commercial opportunism), but is not the only pointer towards greatness and career longevity.

Boucher citted the 1999 National Poetry Day studying the relationship between poetry and song lyrics, with the opening line to Dylan’s Visions of Johanna as a big favourite: ‘Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet’. The consensus was that ‘pop lyrics have their own integrity within the much broader texture of music, image, performance and attitude’.

Beatles, Stones and Solo Artistes

Paul McCartney, former Beatle and Wings lead, still sells out concerts, and his song Yesterday is described by the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the most covered song ever written, with over 3000 versions’. It is reported that he thought of the melody in his head during a dream. With his time as one of the ‘fab four’ Beatles,1957-69, singing and co-writing songs that have survived in popular appeal, he would have made a mark sufficient on music history to be remembered. Since that time he has continued to be an important, significant and enduring presence in the music industry.

AskMen UK puts Mick Jagger, lead singer/leader of The Rolling Stones in the category of continued success story: ‘both by staying in the public’s imagination and by bringing the necessary energy and ambition needed to keep The Rolling Stones going’. They still make and sell albums, (22 studio ones to date), still sell out gigs, and when Jagger says or does something, even in his 60s, it still has newsworthiness envied by many who aspire to fame. He didn’t make much from The Stones’ 60s’ song success because of legal disputes, poor contracts and the customs of the times, but is reputed to be a canny businessmen.

Famous for a glamorous and controversial lifestyle, Rod Stewart had a scare when diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the Oral Cancer Foundation painted a glowing testimony to the man’s career over four decades and charitable work as a result of his health. Interested in music, football and left wing politics, he had a chequered career before joining The Jeff Beck Group in 1966, The Faces and then a solo career, adapting his styles over the years, capitalising on a unique voice, writing some hits and reinterpreting others.

His work in the 2000s as spokeperson for cancer research, puts him in the league of charitable, semi-political musicians who have achieved global recognition and carry a lot of weight in the media, along with Bob Geldof, Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks.

Welshman Tom Jones began in the pop industry in the 1960s, as a female-adored idol and in 2010, still able to sell out a long run in Las Vegas, he topped the album charts with a controversial collection of religious-based music, Praise and Blame. He still makes waves. Likewise, Van Morrison is acclaimed as one of music’s truly innovative artists, collaborating a popular blend of R&B, jazz, blues, and Celtic folk, who draws loyal fans from every age group, from those who remember him in Them, and those born long after.

It’s the mark of a great survivor in popular culture, that young people want to listen.

First published on Suite 101, 8 October 2010.

Photo: Leonard Cohen: Folk Poet Supreme – Rama

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