For ages that border seemed utterly impregnable: the distinction between singer and songwriter. Songwriters toiled away with ink-stained hands behind the scenes, carefully concocting their tunes. They were the master craftsmen who built the Great American Songbook brick by brick (Berlin, Gershwin, et al), or the pistons who kept the Motown machine pumping (Holland-Dozier-Holland, Barrett Strong, etc.). They were the early architects of rock ’n' roll like Lieber & Stoller or the crew who toiled in the Brill Building beehive (including teams like Gerry Goffin and Carole King or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil). On the other side of that divide were the singers—the ones in the spotlight who made the word flesh, bringing all those brilliant songs to life for millions of ears. But as earth-shattering as the impact of artists like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Elvis Presley was, they didn't pen their own material. All that changed in the ‘60s.

Largely thanks to Bob Dylan—one of the first solo artists to demolish the barriers and popularize the notion of the singer/songwriter—the combination of these previously distinct crafts became an art of its own. Before the decade was over, you couldn't walk through Greenwich Village without tripping over a few artistically self-sustaining troubadours. But the phenomenon wasn't limited to the States. Canadians like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell were on the scene in the '60s too, as were the likes of Donovan and Roy Harper in the UK. By the time the '70s rolled around, the idea of the introspective singer/songwriter pouring intense emotions into song had become the norm. In the early '70s, you practically had to be a singer/songwriter to get on the radio, which worked out well for Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Don McLean, and even Brill Building refugees like Carole King and Neil Diamond. Sensitive balladeers fell out of fashion in the early '80s, but new-schoolers like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman helped turn the tide. Since then, singer/songwriters have never been away from the mainstream for long; more recently, tunesmiths like Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, and Norah Jones have taken up the mantle. And as long as there are passions to put to music, singer/songwriters will remain as heroes who need little more than six strings and the truth.