- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

The recent flare-up over songwriting credits between Avril Lavigne and Chantal Kreviazuk may have seemed like an intra-Canadian spat, but, really, it’s as quintessentially American as apple pie.

“Singers insisting on sharing authorship with songwriters is an unfortunate American tradition,” says Paul Zollo, author of the critically acclaimed interview collection “Songwriters on Songwriting.”

For the uninitiated: Miss Kreviazuk, a fairly obscure (at least in the U.S.) singer-songwriter who was tapped as a co-writer for Miss Lavigne’s 2004 release “Under My Skin,” seemingly confirmed in an interview with Performing Songwriting magazine what many had already suspected — that Miss Lavigne’s aptitude for songwriting was a trumped-up illusion.

Avril, songwriter?” she said. “Avril doesn’t really sit and write songs by herself or anything. Avril will also cross the ethical line and no one says anything.”

Miss Kreviazuk quickly recanted the statement. But her tale still resonates for a simple reason: What she describes has been the industry norm since time immemorial.

The practice of singers receiving dubious authorship credits is typically pegged to the early rock era. Mr. Zollo notes the famous example of the 1956 Elvis Presley classic “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was co-written by Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton and pedal-steel guitarist Thomas Durden. Miss Axton included Mr. Presley in the byline, she said, to help give his career a boost.

Mr. Presley also is credited for “Love Me Tender” along with composer Vera Matson — even though, says Mr. Zollo, neither one had a thing to do with the song: Its tune was adapted from the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee,” while Miss Matson’s husband, Ken Darby, wrote its lyrics.

But Mr. Zollo says songwriters have been cheated out of recognition — and, hence, publishing and performance royalties — for as long as songwriting has been a profession.

Stephen Foster, the seminal 19th-century American composer, “was exploited by ruthless music publishers who sold his songs in sheet music and paid him no royalties at all,” Mr. Zollo says. “It’s an old story.”

And until the 1960s, it was primarily a mercenary story.

Then came the deification of the performing songwriter, which begat a powerful new motive to grasp for authorship credits: the aura of creative authenticity.

Singer-songwriters such as Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino and Sam Cooke had been performing their own material for years. But the explosive popularity of the Beatles and Bob Dylan generated a critical establishment that elevated self-contained songwriting above all else.

It was “almost as though non-songwriting performers like Frank Sinatra had never existed,” says J. Douglas Waterman, editor in chief of Nashville-based American Songwriter magazine.

Critics, in turn, “pushed this idea in the minds of music fans,” Mr. Waterman adds.

Says Mr. Zollo: “Songs took on a more intimate and personal perspective when written by singer-songwriters. So singers feel their work has more gravity when their name is part of the songwriting credits.”

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