Fans of "outsider music," from Harvey Sid Fisher to Ken Nordine, unite and embrace the pretty train wreck that is the song-poem. To music lovers intrigued by music so bad it's good: Take heed of The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush, a primer for the Bizarro world of song-poems. Rich with its own mythology, the song-poem netherworld deserves its own analysis. In fact, the musical subgenre was the inspiration for a recent hourlong documentary on PBS' Independent Lenses series titled "Off the Charts." It is also the subject of a labyrinthine Web site maintained by song-poem expert Phil Milstein, also responsible for compiling the new anthology.
A song-poem is not a new-agey spoken-word piece with wind chimes in the background. Rather, it rises from a century-old scam, a con game waiting quietly for suckers in the back of comic books, music magazines and supermarket tabloids. Numerous companies, largely from the Los Angeles area, began placing ads as early as the turn of the 20th century. These little ads still entice amateur songwriters to send in their lyrics, because the industry needs new songwriting talent, and can you believe your luck, you are it! The ads manifest themselves in a nearly endless variety of ways. The goal, however, is always the same. The companies really just want the money. Once the studio receives the lyrics (almost none are rejected for content), a pitch is sent to the writers, amateurs who have always thought that gem they wrote in high school could be a hit. To paraphrase:
We understand how hard it is to get lyrics heard by industry pros, but we have contacts up the ying and also happen to have a vast cadre of talent waiting to crystallize your vision into a full-fledged song. For a nominal fee (today generally in the mid-three hundreds), we will put your inspiration to music, in the style you prescribe, with male or female voice, even utilizing your choice of key, melody or sheet music.
Once the song-poem company receives the money, the amateur's words run through the songwriting mill, a factory environment where low-wage musicians often roll tape and let fly. The focus is on quantity, with sessions sometimes producing up to 15 songs in an hour. The end products, these super-low-budget songs, get made into short-run singles or compilations, nestled neatly next to other rubes' contributions. The companies only produce enough of a given compilation or single to send a few copies to the marks.
This industry that was meant to be a private pleasure or a horror for the song-poet has slowly bled into subculture. The music is like nothing you have ever heard.
This anthology represents the "best" of this genre, the stuff that has surfaced at thrift stores, swap meets and record fairs, found by music geeks across the country. Selections deemed collectible are largely culled from the industry's heyday, the 1960s and '70s. The best songs some valuable for their ironic worth, others actually great tunes hold up next to the weirdest of the weird.
A sampling of song titles verifies that: "Human Breakdown of Absurdity," "I Like Yellow Things," "Listen Mister Hat." The music ranges from drunken cowboy crooners, late-night last-session madness and uninspired, nonsensical lounge delivery to musical ingenuity in adverse conditions.
Two lyrical gems:
"Disco disco disco/I am going to Mt. Kisco/I am going to buy Crisco/To bake a cake/So I can disco disco disco" (from "How Long Are You Staying").
"I lost my girl to an Argentinean Cowboy/A bronco bustin'/Cow punchin' Gay Boy" (from "I Lost My Girl to an Argentinean Cowboy").
The song-poem universe is vast and nebulous, and this anthology is a perfect introduction. At the very least, it'll make for a nice mind-fuck when the company needs to go home.