Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition

By Larry David Smith | Go to book overview
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This is the third volume of a continuing exploration into the practice of songwriting. Merging auteur theory and narrative criticism, I’ve examined one songwriter’s career in terms of his narrative tendencies and professional negotiations (Pete Townshend), and I’ve compared two songwriters’ contributions to the Woody Guthrie celebrity-singer-songwriter tradition of American song (Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen). Here I apply the technique to Joni Mitchell’s and Elvis Costello’s careers as I consider these two artists’ lifeworks and their impact on the melodramatic love story known as the torch song. These books represent an effort to build a body of knowledge in a systematic way, so I occasionally use my previous findings regarding Dylan, Springsteen, and Townshend to make sense of my current observations. The auteur-narrative framework is a fine hammer for pounding away on the unique artistic role that emerged with the celebrity-singersongwriter in the mid-twentieth century. The celebrity-singer-songwriter composite changed the musical world and, as this book hopefully demonstrates, shifted the content and style of specific musical genres.

Of course, I must pause to thank the many wonderful people who have contributed to this work. Heartfelt thanks go out to Glenda and Wayne Hall, Michael Holmes, Nicola Joss, and Pete Townshend. I would also like to thank the city of Memphis, Tennessee, for providing a magical workplace throughout this book’s development. The stars align in a special way over the Holy City of American Music. Please, go there and feel it. Memphis features the world’s greatest radio station (WEVL), a storied musical history, and some of the most colorful characters you’ll ever meet (thanks, Richard Owen!). Thank you, Memphis! May your future be as bright as your past.


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