What is the connection between singers and the songs they sing? Phrased another way, do singers take responsibility for the songs they sing?
What I have in mind is the singers who sing songs with messages such as these:
• “My girlfriend left me, so I’m going to kill myself.”
• “I am great all by myself.”
• “I’m going to get revenge.”
Of course, the songs are phrased more poetically than that. But when I hear one of these songs, I think, “Really? That’s the message you want to give the world?”
Similar questions could be asked about actors who play serial killers, mobsters, fraud artists, rapists, drug addicts, etc. For singers are really playing roles, a different role for each song they sing—the hopeful suitor, the jilted lover, the person in mourning, the self-centered egotist, the person grateful for undeserved blessings, the searcher for meaning. These songs sell because there are people in those situations who identify with these songs—the songs express what they are feeling but in clearer ways than they could do themselves.
Therefore, it is helpful to recognize that it is not the singer expressing these sentiments but the character the singer is portraying. Or is it? What responsibility does the singer have for the messages in the songs he sings?
This came to mind a while back when I was watching If You Could Read My Mind, a documentary about legendary Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Many Americans will not recognize the name, but they have probably heard someone else singing one of his many songs.
Lightfoot did not follow the modern route of pounding away on a guitar in his garage and posting the result on YouTube, hoping to become famous. When, as a young man, he decided he wanted to be a singer, he went off to a highly regarded school in California to study music. He is a consummate professional who has worked hard to perfect his craft, both music and lyrics.
The documentary opens with one of Lightfoot’s early hits: “That’s What You Get for Loving Me.” It’s about a man who is unfaithful: “I ain’t the kind to hang around with any new love that I found…I’ve had a hundred more like you…I’ll have a thousand before I’m through.” In the documentary, after a few lines, Lightfoot tells the producer to turn it off. He is deeply embarrassed by the song now. He wrote it just after he had abandoned his wife and children for another woman. He said he has been divorced three times and each time it almost killed him.
Lightfoot was also an alcoholic, which almost destroyed his career—until he quit cold turkey. His experience with alcohol might have informed some of his songs, such as “the Old Man Came Home from the Forest” (a lament for an old wino) and “Early Morning Rain” (a song about a man who is cold, broke, and drunk, far from his family).
Lightfoot also wrote some beautiful love songs and addressed wider themes. He wrote some memorable songs on historical events: “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and “Black Day in July” (about the 1967 riots in Detroit).
Lightfoot also wrote “Sit Down, Young Stranger,” which he said was about his first failed marriage but which has echoes of the many songs written in the days of the Jesus movement as mainstream artists tried to understand Jesus. Some of Lightfoot’s songs were truly inspiring, such as “Rainy Day People” (“always seem to know when it’s time to come around”), “Rich Man’s Spiritual” (“I’m gonna buy me a poor man’s trouble, yes, Lord, to help me home”), and “The House that You Live in Will Never Fall Down if You Pity the Stranger who Stands at your Gate” (which echoes the social provisions in the Mosaic law).
Lightfoot is a great songwriter whose songs have been an influence for good—and for evil. His many songs inspire much thought.