The origins of the singer-songwriter in North America can be traced back to folk singers who created original works in the folk music style. The best known early singer-songwriters include Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, along with members of The Weavers (Seeger performed solo and as part of the Weavers). These proto-singer-songwriters were less concerned than today's singer-songwriters with the unadulterated originality of their music and lyrics, and would lift parts from other songs and play covers without hesitation. The tradition of writing topical songs (songs regarding specific issues of the day, such as Lead Belly's "Jim Crow Blues" or Guthrie's "Deportees") was established by this group of musicians. These singers would lead rallies for labor unions, and so wrote many songs concerning the life of the working classes. This focus on social issues has greatly influenced the singer-songwriter genre.
The first popular recognition of the singer-songwriter in English-speaking North America and Great Britain occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s when a series of folk and country-influenced musicians rose to prominence and popularity. These singer-songwriters included Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, John Denver, Jackson Browne, Dave Mason, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, Nick Drake, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Bruce Cockburn, Harry Chapin, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Dolly Parton. People who had been primarily songwriters, notably Carole King, also began releasing work as performers. In contrast to the storytelling approach of most prior country and folk music, these performers typically wrote songs from a highly personal (often first-person), introspective point of view. The adjectives "confessional" and "sensitive" were often used (sometimes derisively) to describe this early singer-songwriter style.
While the members of rock bands of the era were not technically singer-songwriters, many former band members (including Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Peter Frampton and later Don Henley and Glenn Frey) found success as singer-songwriters in their later careers.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s the original wave of singer-songwriters had largely been absorbed into a more general pop or soft rock format, but some new artists in the singer-songwriter tradition (including Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Heard, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Cheryl Wheeler and Warren Zevon) continued to emerge, and in other cases rock and even punk rock artists such as Peter Case and Paul Westerberg transitioned to careers as solo singer-songwriters.
In the late 1980s, the term was applied to a group of (predominantly female) artists, beginning with Suzanne Vega with her first album selling unexpectedly well, followed by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang. Likewise, the success of Tori Amos in the United Kingdom led to her success in her home market. By the mid-1990s, the term was revived with the success of Canada's Alanis Morissette and her breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill. It had grown to encompass fellow-Canadian Sarah McLachlan, who started the Lilith Fair, along with other artists associated with that event, such as American artists Sheryl Crow, Victoria Williams, Patty Griffin, Jewel, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Merchant and Joan Osborne.
Also in the 1990s artists such as Dave Matthews and Elliott Smith borrowed from the singer-songwriter tradition to create new acoustic-based rock styles. In the 2000s, a quieter style emerged, with largely impressionistic lyrics, from artists such as Conor Oberst, David Bazan, South San Gabriel, Iron & Wine, Ray LaMontagne, Steve Millar, Jolie Holland and Richard Buckner.
Recording on the professional-grade systems became affordable for individuals in the late 1990s. This created opportunities for people to independently record and sell their music. Such artists are known as "indies" because they release their records on independent, often self-owned record labels, or no label at all. Additionally the Internet has provided a means for indies to get their music heard by a wider audience.
At around the same time, the Brazilian popular style bossa nova was evolving into a politically charged singer-songwriter tradition called Tropicalismo. Two performers, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso became two of the most famous people in all of Brazil through their work in Tropicalismo.
In the same period, there developed in Italy a very prolific singer-songwriter (in Italian cantautore) tradition, initially connected with the French school of the chansonniers, and lately developed very heterogeneously. Although the term cantautore normally implies consistent sociopolitical content in lyrics, noteworthy performers in a more inclusive singer-songwriter categorization are: Domenico Modugno, Luigi Tenco, Gino Paoli, Sergio Endrigo, Fabrizio De André, Francesco De Gregori, Antonello Venditti, Roberto Vecchioni, Ivano Fossati, Lucio Dalla, Francesco Guccini and Franco Battiato. Completely resisting classification is the Neapolitan Pino Daniele, who often fuses genres as diverse as jazz, rock, blues and tarantella to produce a sound uniquely his own, with lyrics variously in Italian, Neapolitan, or English. Similarly Paolo Conte is often tagged as a cantatuore, but is more into the jazz tradition.
In neighbouring Malta, the main singer-songwriters are Walter Micallef, Manwel Mifsud and Vince Fabri. They all perform in Maltese.
Spain and Portugal have also had singer-songwriter traditions, which are sometimes said to have drawn on Latin elements. Spain is known for the nova cançó tradition — exemplified by the Catalan Joan Manuel Serrat; the Portuguese folk/protest singer and songwriter José Afonso helped lead a revival of Portuguese folk culture, including a modernized, more socially-aware form of fado called nova canção. Following Portugal's Carnation Revolution of 1974, nova canção became more politicized and was known as canto livre. Another important Spain singer-songwriter is Joaquin Sabina.
In the latter part of the 1960s and into the 70s, socially and politically aware singer-songwriters like Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés emerged in Cuba, birthing a genre known as nueva trova. Trova as a genre has had broad influence across Latin America. In Mexico, for example, canción yucateca on the Yucatan Peninsula and trova serrana in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca are both regional adaptations of trova. Today, Guatemalan Ricardo Arjona qualifies as Latin America's most commercially successful singer-songwriter. Although sociopolitical engagement is uneven in his oeuvre, some see Arjona's more engaged works as placing him in the tradition of the Italian cantautori.
Since the 1960s, those singers who wrote songs outside the Soviet establishment have been known as "bards". Many bards performed their songs in small groups of people using a Russian guitar, rarely if ever would they be accompanied by other musicians or singers. Those who would become popular would be able to hold modest concerts. Bards were rarely permitted to record their music, given the political nature of many songs. As a result, bard tunes usually made their way around via the copying of amateur recordings (known as magnitizdat) made at concerts, particularly those songs that were of political nature.
Bard poetry differs from other poetry mainly in the fact that it is sung along with a simple guitar melody as opposed to being spoken. Another difference is that this form of poetry focuses less on style and more on meaning. This means that fewer stylistic devices are used, and the poetry often takes the form of narrative. What separates bard poetry from other songs is the fact that the music is far less important than the lyrics; chord progressions are often very simple and tend to repeat from one bard song to another. A far more obvious difference was the commerce-free nature of the genre: songs were written to be sung and not to be sold.