Austin Songwriter reluctantly concedes that the best living songwriter is not from Texas, not even born on American soil. This person’s name is not Dylan or Van Zandt or Clark or Earle, nor even Lennon or McCartney. George Ivan “Van” Morrison is the greatest songwriter on the planet, and we’d be happy to pull on our cowboy boots, stand up on Leonard Cohen’s coffee table, and scream it to the heavens!
You certainly pause and remember when some sleepy disc jockey cues up “Brown-Eyed Girl”, “Crazy Love” and “Into the Mystic”, and you may have a vision of a wild-eyed leprechaun belting out “Caravan” with Robbie Robertson and the boys in 1978’s The Last Waltz. These were Morrison’s glory days, at least in terms of commercial success, before he began to transition from another incredible sixties rock star into a sullen sage of obscure wisdom and soaring spirituality.
He has been gracing us with an album every year or so since the release of Tupelo Honey in 1971, when he pretty much fell out of common favor. The music he has delivered since, filling more than twenty-five albums of original work, is utterly unique and simply magnificent. Too much quality and honesty for some, but for the rest of us an absolute treasure of the songwriter’s art. If you haven’t been paying attention, you are sorely in need of a thoughtful pause and a strong dose of Van the Man.
Born in 1945 in Belfast, Morrison has always maintained a proud sense of his heritage, Irish roots peppered with the blood of the Ulster Scots who migrated to Northern Ireland in the 17th century. He hit America in the sixties and has since lived and performed on both sides of the Atlantic, in the process garnering six Grammy Awards and a knighthood, as well as inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The accumulation of Morrison’s work can best be described as a spiritual life’s journey portrayed in a music sometimes known, too simply, as “Celtic soul”.
His songs are certainly the child of the Celtic tradition, but they also embody American jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, folk and blues. Someone once said that he had invented a personal emotional equivalent of the blues. Put another way, Van Morrison has created a personal musical literature that, while unabashedly drawing upon the various folk traditions he loves, is sincerely spiritual, genuinely inspirational, and all his own.
Along the way he has preached a little, but his message is always joy and possibility, rather than the dogma and judgment we are accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. A soft path through the days ahead, a little sunlight for the soul. Like we said, the greatest living songwriter.
Three things to know about Van Morrison: (1) his first band was named The Sputniks, after the controversial Soviet satellite, (2) he once worked as a window cleaner, inspiring “Cleaning Windows”, his joyful meditation on the simplicity of honest hard work, and (3) his daughter Shana Morrison is an accomplished musician in her own right.