Singer/songwriters can be a self-examining lot, and plenty of their songs are about the face staring back from the mirror. But once in a while, they expand their focus to include their fellow travelers. And who are a songwriter’s most likely cohorts? You guessed it: other songwriters. They might be buddies, enemies, heroes, or love interests, but over the years there’s been no shortage of great writers penning tunes about their fellow workers in song. Some come from the most celebrated artists on the planet, and some from the underground, but the best of them — including the ones you’ll encounter right here — give you the feeling you’re overhearing some juicy gossip straight from the singing horse’s mouth.
George Harrison – “All Those Years Ago”
There were other tribute songs to John Lennon in the wake of his murder, but none from as close a cohort as George Harrison, who offered “All Those Years Ago” on his 1981 album, Somewhere in England. Reflecting on Lennon’s good times and bad both with The Beatles and on his own, the track was the first reunion of the surviving Beatles, with Ringo on drums and Paul on backing vocals. It also gave Harrison his biggest solo hit since 1973.
Bob Dylan – “Song to Woody”
Woody Guthrie was a hero and inspiration to the young Dylan, who modeled much of his early style after the folk legend. In 1961 Dylan visited the ailing Guthrie at home and played him “Song to Woody,” a tribute to the dust bowl troubadour’s travels and friends (Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Leadbelly). It became one of the only two original songs on Dylan’s ’62 debut album, and was arguably the record’s most poetic piece.
David Bowie – “Song for Bob Dylan”
A decade after Dylan sang to Woody, David Bowie offered up both an homage to that song and a direct tribute to Dylan with “Song for Bob Dylan.” Bowie, who was only just emerging as a major figure at the time, rhapsodized about Dylan’s poetic vision and his effect both on the world at large and Bowie in particular. The singer leaned into a Dylanesque vocal inflection that underlined Dylan’s influence on Bowie during that period.
Graham Nash – “Our House”
In the early ’70s, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were the king and queen of the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter scene. Nash was the first to chronicle the couple’s relationship in song, putting his immortal ode to the Canyon house the pair shared at the time on the 1970 CSNY album Déjà Vu. Destined to become a classic, it’s the ultimate idealized portrait of domesticity, and its slightly Beatlesque feel highlights the pop sensibilities Nash brought the band.
Joni Mitchell – “My Old Man”
Just a month after “Our House” appeared, Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon aired her take on her relationship with Graham Nash, “Willy” (Mitchell’s nickname for her boyfriend). But “My Old Man” from 1971’s epochal Blue was more resonant, and as enraptured as Mitchell seems to be with her lover, there’s just a hint of melancholy to the music that offsets the lyrics, and foreshadows the pairing’s imminent end. Before Blue was completed, Joni and Graham were exes, and the album’s mournful “River” is her raw reaction to the breakup.
Ward White – “Leonard at the Audit”
On the title track of his lyrically deft, melodically commanding album Leonard at the Audit, L.A.-based art-pop auteur Ward White keys in on Leonard Cohen’s brief early-’70s flirtation with Scientology. Cohen’s reference to going “clear” (a key Scientology concept) in his classic “Famous Blue Raincoat” can be traced to that dalliance, and in the parlance of the creed, an “audit” is similarly crucial. But White loves to tweak his tunes into idiosyncratic shapes, so he creates a parallel narrative in which “Leonard” is some corporate number-cruncher playing fast and loose with the books, and the “audit” is of a more traditional sort. Like the rest of the record, the tune keeps you on your toes.
Related: “Leonard Cohen: Incurable Love and Stranger Songs”
Leonard Cohen – “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Since we’re on the subject, the aforementioned song from Cohen’s 1971 milestone Songs of Love and Hate fits this list too. It’s an epistolary song in which he addresses “my brother, my killer,” the man who had an affair with Cohen’s longtime love Marianne (whom Cohen celebrated in “So Long Marianne”). The interloper in question happens to be fellow singer/songwriter David Blue, whose real surname, coincidentally enough, was also Cohen. “Famous Blue Raincoat” even occasioned a bit of an answer song in Blue’s “Marianne,” released later that year, which focused on the songwriters’ shared love interest but also included (albeit anonymously) “her older poet.”
Over the Rhine – “Don’t Wait for Tom”
Ohio folk-rockers Over the Rhine manage to pay both musical and lyrical homage to Tom Waits in this 2007 tune. Sure, Waits’s last name is never dropped, and theoretically, the song could be about some other Tom, but between lyrics like “He takes a little bow and tips his fedora/Shouts like he’s gonna save Sodom and Gomorrah,” the junkyard production, and Linford Detweiler’s grainy, chanted vocal delivery, it’s pretty clear that Cruise and Hanks can be crossed off the list.
Photo: Bob Dylan, 1978 (Getty Images)
How about “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Seems like an obvious omission here.
Todd Rundgren’s Lost Horizon is rumored to be an ode to Marvyn Gaye his favorite singer. It’s a really cool song and in concert he folds it into a few of Marvyn’s songs in a really beautiful tribute. I really enjoyed your post Jim!
Oops excuse my error in spelling Marvin Gaye.
Nice list! Also: Paul Simon gave us “The Late, Great Johnny Ace” and, of course, “Graceland.” And while it opens up to be about later events, Don McLean’s “American Pie” is first a tribute to Buddy Holly.
Jimmy Webb’s “P.F. Sloan,” Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” and, in a way, “Johnny B. Goode” if you think of it as autobiographical.
Lindsey Buckingham’s Johnny Stew and John Stewart’s response Liddy Buck.