The term singer-songwriter refers to performers who both write and sing their own material. This distinguishes them from artists who are only singers, such as Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra, who typically sing the material of professional songwriters, and from artists who are primarily songwriters, and who typically do not perform their own work, such as Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerry Leiber or Mike Stoller. Even in many cases where the performer and writer are one and the same, but the roles of songwriter and singer are essentially discrete (such as a rock musician writing a ballad for his band to play) the results are not considered singer-songwriter material.
This arrangement -- singer and songwriter as discrete artists -- was the standard in popular music until about the 1960s. In the late 1960s, however, with the rise of new forms of folk music, and in particular the work of Bob Dylan, it began to become more common for artists to perform their own music, and for that music to be highly intertwined with the personality and viewpoint of the artist.
The first recognition of the singer-songwriter as a musical genre occurred in the early 1970s when a series of folk- and country-influenced musicians rose to prominence and popularity. These early singer-songwriters included Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and James Taylor. 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.
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 (notably Lucinda Williams) 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 re-applied to a group of female singers and songwriters, beginning with Tracy Chapman, k.d. lang and P.J. Harvey. By the mid-1990s, the term's revival had grown to encompass Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, Joan Osborne and Tori Amos, and other performers associated with the Lilith Fair. In the 1990s artists such as Dave Matthews borrowed from the singer-songwriter tradition to create new acoustic-based rock styles.
Typically, a singer-songwriter will perform solo or with understated accompaniment, accompany him- or herself on an instrument (often guitar or keyboards), and be equally well-known for the songs they write as for the way they are performed.