Last year, Barneys had an unusual little item for sale: A green and yellow designer pillow with the seven deadly sins embroidered on it in a retro computer font. This faux flea-market charm, which looked like something you would have found on a distant cousin’s couch in 1983, cost about $200.
On the one hand, it was a neat trick of fashion hucksterism-retro lowbrow for the uptown fabulous. On the other, it acknowledged a simple truth: There’s something undeniably alluring about bad folk art that has aged into fine cheese.
In music, it’s much the same. Ever since Frank Zappa sang the praises of the Shaggs-that tone-deaf quartet of awkward daughters forced by their Svengali father to emulate the Beatles in the late 60′s-there’s been a growing sense among music critics that the collective unconscious of America is sometimes best articulated not by the tastemakers but by the taste-challenged, who are often socially isolated, to say the least.
In the parlance of record collectors, it’s called outsider music. Daniel Johnston is a classic example. So is the Danielson Family. (There’s something about having Daniel in your name …. ) Or think of Greil Marcus’ idea of “old, weird America,” where the braying of an obscure country crackpot with a banjo can say more about our dark soul than Bing Crosby ever could.
Out of this genre comes the heretofore undocumented world of song-poems, featured on a new 28-track compilation called The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush (Bar/None), that was released on Feb. 11, the same day that Jamie Meltzer’s documentary, Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story , aired on the PBS series Independent Lens .
For the last 40 years, it seems, lonely grandmas, emotionally crippled teenagers and shut-ins of all stripes have been responding to ads in the backs of magazines-”Poems Wanted for Songs & Records”; “Your Songs or Poems May Earn Money for You”-that promised them the possibility of fortune for their creative output. By sending their poems and lyrics to mail-order companies in Nashville and Hollywood-along with checks for $75 or so-they received vanity records featuring their words set to country, folk, soul or rock music by professional studio musicians.
Of course these aspiring songwriters never made a cent, but the fruits of their labors were often marvels of American oddity, touching on such unsung themes as the color yellow, Richard Nixon, Argentinean cowboys, masturbation (“All You Need Is a Fertile Mind”), a woman and her goat and, of course, “Kung Fu Bicycles.” This stuff makes Stephen Merritt seem redundant.
The song-poem genre found its way into the avant-garde through the usual cultural jujitsu of obsessed record collectors. Tom Ardolino, drummer for the band NRBQ, collected thousands of song-poem records before he recently sold them all to fellow enthusiast Penn Jillette. Hip indie bands helped spread the word: Yo La Tengo covered a song-poem called “How Can a Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain,” first recorded by Rodd Keith, a.k.a. Rodney Eskelin, the tragic mid-60′s pioneer of the song-poem industry, who was suspected of committing suicide in a fit of career despondency and drug addiction. (As it happens, he also sired the avant-garde saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, though the two never met.)
The song-poem is a uniquely American experiment. Take the lyrics of John Trubee, a disgruntled teenager in mid-70′s Princeton, N.J., who appears in the documentary. Skeptical of the ad he read, Mr. Trubee scribbled the worst lyrics he could dream up on a sheet of paper-a parody of the LSD-damaged lyrics of bands like Iron Butterfly-and sent them to a song-poem company in Nashville. “Warts love my nipples because they are pink,” it goes. “Vomit on me baby, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Not long after, Ramsey Kearney, a struggling country musician turned song-poem entrepreneur-who looks like John Goodman and sings like Ernest Tubb-transformed “Blind Man’s Penis (Peace and Love)” into something remarkably listenable and melodic, featuring a full Nashville band. He got $79.95 for the effort.
While a lot of the song-poem lyrics sound like spins through a rhyming dictionary-like Mary Urrutia’s “Disco, disco, disco / I am going to Mount Kisco / I am going to buy Crisco”-some would-be lyricists show naïve promise. Using the lyrics of someone named Tiel Faulkner, a song-poem group called the MSR Singers put together a groovy R&B number that might have done well for Melanie, Donna Summers or Sesame Street : “Lemon pies and butterflies / Yellow submarines / Corn on the cob and tangerines / I like yellow things.” It’s the musical version of that designer pillow.
The ever-timely “Human Breakdown of Absurdity”-penned by anonymous hopefuls Ove Lid and Lew Tobin and performed by Norm Burns & Singers-is best imagined as a Gene Pitney song with lyrics by Black Sabbath. With an eerie female vocal wailing in the background and a swinging guitar noodling away, Mr. Burns croons: “Fate will point in the fortune fountain / Searching for a place in the mountain / Where the sexless virgins could moan / Watched by clergymen with faces of stone / Under the law of human absurdity.”
The most absurd thing about “Human Absurdity” is just how uncannily good it is.
Perhaps the most unlikely hit on the collection is the political anthem “Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes,’” penned by Waskey Elwood Walls Jr., of Yreka, Calif. It was performed by a studio pro named Gene Marshall, a.k.a. Gene Merlino, who set the lyric to a graceful melody and a funky wokka-wokka guitar riff. It sounds like a moon-eyed Glenn Campbell making a disco campaign song: “Can our government / Be competent?” he sings. “Jimmy Carter says ‘Yes’ / Jimmy Carter says ‘Yes.’” (One imagines Mr. Carter saying “No” nowadays.)
The beauty of Mr. Meltzer’s accompanying documentary, Off the Charts , is that it travels the dusty backroads to actually get a look at the song-poets. Mr. Walls, for instance, is everything you’d dream: Sitting in his living-room lounger, sun-baked and looking like a wooden Indian, he wears a purple bandanna and a blue silk western shirt with sequins. From his wild-eyed interview, it appears he’s batshit crazy-and still a believer in the former President.
The studio players are also a culture unto themselves. Most are failed songwriters or out-of-work session men. The savvy and smooth Mr. Marshall, who has the well-preserved cool of the late Carl Perkins, had some success in a singing group called the Mello Men in the late 60′s. At one point, he displays photos of himself with Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher. Mr. Marshall says of Mr. Fisher: “I recently coached him through an album, a comeback album. It never worked out, Eddie’s not going to come back. He’s had it.”
The happy-sad aspect of the song-poem story-which is handled with graceful aplomb by Mr. Meltzer-is that many lyricists had actually hoped they’d get famous. In the most cruelly hilarious scene, a man named Gary Forney talks with pride about some airplay he got in Denmark. Drawn and haggard, Mr. Forney drives his jalopy to a pay phone in rural LaPorte City, Iowa, to give the Danish radio station a call-to see how he’s playing in Copenhagen. After he introduces himself to the station manager, there’s a long, painful pause. “Uh, Gary Forney?” he says, trying to jog the D.J.’s memory. “‘The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be’?”
It’s Mr. Forney’s noble attempt at dignity in front of the camera-”I just thought I’d check in with you,” he says, drawing nervously on his cigarette-that really gets to the heart of the song-poem world and its Don Quixote spirit.