Awards ceremonies can sometimes feel perfunctory and off-putting, an occasion to congratulate someone not for the art they create but for the commercial success they enjoy.
There was none of that at Monday’s ceremony at the JFK Library honoring two of America’s greatest lyricists. Indeed, during the 90-minute celebration of songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Randy Newman, there was not a mention of units sold or gold records or Billboard charts. That would be crass.
Instead, the folks at PEN New England, which created the Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award in 2012, are focused on the spectacular effect well-chosen words can have when put to music. Whether lyrics can rise to the level of literature, said PEN New England chairman Richard Hoffman, is a “puny and preposterous question,” as the canon of Kristofferson and Newman makes clear.
If you’re wondering who picks the honorees, it’s a committee whose members know a thing or two about verse and chorus, including Bono, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, poets Paul Muldoon and Natasha Trethewey, music historian Bill Flanagan, and novelist Salman Rushdie. (The inaugural recipients of the award were Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen, meaning it may be time to honor someone of the opposite sex.)
Monday’s honorees were feted with words and music of their own by an A-list lineup that included Costello, Cash, T Bone Burnett, Lyle Lovett, Allen Toussaint, and Peter Wolf, who read admiring missives from the likes of John Prine, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor.
Cash, whose daddy was country legend Johnny Cash, said Kristofferson had been “like family” since she was a little girl. “He knows where all the bodies are buried,” she said, grinning. Accompanied by Costello on acoustic guitar, Cash then sang Kristofferson’s 1971 song “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” The song’s author bowed his head and wiped away tears as the last notes faded.
Invited to perform, the 77-year-old country singer, his creased face still plenty handsome, stepped to the microphone and strummed “Me and Bobby McGee,” his best-known song and an enormous hit for onetime girlfriend Janis Joplin. It was the audience’s turn to get emotional.
“That song has never been done better,” Newman said afterward. “I’m so happy I was here for that. You’ll remember that for the rest of your life.”
Newman, whose 40-year career has included a few improbable hits (“Short People” and “I Love L.A.”), two Academy Awards (and 20 nominations), and a trove of smart, satirical songs that has won him the reverence of his peers, seemed to enjoy himself Monday. He told the crowd he’s “just enough of a snob” to relish receiving an award from a literary group.
Lovett said Newman songs like “Rednecks,” about bigotry and the South, are “outrageous and courageous.” Burnett said the song “Sail Away” is “as deft a use of irony as our language has produced,” which is high praise coming from a guy who was Bob Dylan’s guitarist. And Toussaint reminded us what a talented piano player Newman is, performing “Louisiana 1927,” which includes some uncommon chord progressions.
“I’ve heard that song played hundred of times, mostly by me,” deadpanned Newman. “Wow. I’m really touched by that.”