Reprinted from the liner notes to the
song-poem compilation CD, The American Song-Poem Anthology:
Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood And Brush
cover design by David Richman
You could call The American Song-Poem
Anthology a best-of collection, though some among you
might ask, "the best of -- what???" These tracks,
many of which date back to the late '60s, were originally
designed to have the shortest of shelf lives. They were
hastily made vanity productions meant to be enjoyed by
the dreamers, visionaries, hopefuls, and crackpots who
paid off-the-industry-radar recording companies in Nashville,
Hollywood, and New York to have their words set to music.
Yet, improbably enough, these songs have outlasted some
of the legitimate hits of the day to become the stuff
of pop legend, a uniquely American folk art that has attracted
an avid cult following. Fans scour thrift shops, flea
markets and record store bargain bins looking for undiscovered
material on obscure compilation discs or vintage vinyl,
artifacts probably unloaded there by family and friends
of the "artists" after they'd cleaned out their
basements, attics, or entertainment consoles. The audience
continues to grow as collectors swap files and exchange
info on the 'net. But you don't have to get your hands
dirty or overload your hard drive; just pop on this disc
and you'll hear the tunes most sought after, puzzled over,
and savored by connoisseurs of this surreal subculture.
Welcome to the world of song-poems.
* * *
What the heck, you might also ask, does the term "song-poem"
mean, anyway? It's a euphemism, really, for the words
to a song, a gussied-up term adopted by the shadowy studios
that advertised in tabloids and pulp mags for potential
"hit makers." They weren't trying to make their
pitches sound romantic or high-falutin'; as compilation
producer Phil Milstein puts it, the proprietors of these
low-budget song factories "believe that their typical
customer is too dumb to grasp the meaning of the simple
English word lyric. At the same time it's meant to signal
an expanse of possible source materials, as in, 'We'll
set your song, your poem, even your goddamn shopping list
to music; we don't care what you give us, so long as your
checks don't bounce.'"
You've probably glanced at song-poem ads
while doing your supermarket checkout reading: "Popular,
Rock and Roll, Country, and Sacred poems needed AT ONCE!
Send your poems today for prompt FREE EXAMINATION AND
APPRAISAL." ... "We need new ideas FOR RECORDING."
... "Your songs or poems may EARN MONEY FOR YOU!"
While no shopping-list songs have made it into this collection,
there are tributes to former presidents Richard Nixon
and Jimmy Carter; a rambling remembrance in free verse
of the first moon landing; a warning about the dangers
of pornography ("all you need is a fertile mind")
combined with an endorsement of the stress-relieving benefits
of masturbation; a salute to the color yellow; and a feisty
little soul number, sung with genuine swing, about being
a hospital patient. There are piquant country numbers
like "I Lost My Girl To An Argentinean Cowboy";
a philosophical look back at an acid trip with Beach Boys-style
harmonies called "Ecstasy to Frenzy" ("Perhaps
the world's a cube/Or a tunnel or a tube ..."); and
a first-person lament, "I'm Just the Other Woman,"
sung, with a slatternly sort of ruefulness, by a man in
falsetto to the accompaniment of a leering tenor sax melody.
The woman who penned the lyrics to "I'm
Just the Other Woman" may not have envisioned anything
quite so nonchalantly lurid, but that's part of the song-poem
magic. The writers who paid from $75 to $400 to have their
words committed to song never quite knew what they were
going to get. Composers employed by the song-poem outfits
hastily wrote melodies for the lyrics they received. Then
studio players, paid by the hour or per song, would look
over a lyric, learn the tune, and cut a track all in a
matter of minutes so they could cram a dozen or so tunes
into a single session. There wasn't time to mull over
the words or correct any mistakes -- in "The Moon
Men," for example, vocalist John Muir sings "gem"
when he should have sung "germ," and it just
makes the long-winded tale that much more strange.
As Milstein explains, "Song-poem
music is the only scam that produces a unique work of
art with every transaction." Despite the assembly-line
method of production, there were so many random forces
at work simultaneously that the best of these sessions
resulted in the sort of happy accidents compiled here.
The studio musicians involved were pros, but they used
a variety of assumed names, a la porn movie directors,
to protect the more legitimate sides of their careers
-- and to disguise the fact that it was often the same
vocalist singing on so many of the tracks. "John
Muir," for example, is but one of several pseudonyms
for Gene Marshall; he chose that particular name, he said,
because he was an admirer of the famous West Coast naturalist.
Song-poem clients didn't have to simply
accept whatever the composers and musicians dreamed up
for them. In fact, Mary Clignett, the customer who penned
the words to "I'm Just the Other Woman," insisted
that her song-poem be re-recorded. The original was even
odder than the one that appears here, with a piano track
played backwards for psychedelic effect over a wobbly
jazz combo that sounded as if they had drifted in from
some other session ... and that "drag" vocal
on top of it all. Customers could specify the genre they
imagined their words would work best in -- country, pop,
rock, or soul, for example. The song-poem studios hired
vocalists who were versatile -- or desperate -- enough
to tackle a variety of styles. In the case of the best-known
song-poem singer, Rodd Keith, he could do a little bit
of everything, from composing to playing to vocalizing,
and he was the guy who impersonated the Other Woman.
Some of the song-poem performers were
frustrated, down-on-their luck, or has-been artistes;
they often couldn't help putting just a little bit of
themselves into their work. At the very least, they were
professional about conveying, with either actor-like emotion
or noble stoicism, the lyrics they were handed. Just listen
to Ramsey Kearney's straight-up (so to speak) rendition
of "Blind Man's Penis," one of the most celebrated
song-poems. Ramsey brings a certain tenderness to the
final chorus as he half-whispers the immortal words, "A
blind man's penis is erect because he's blind ..."
Unlike most contributors to this anthology,
the writer of that lyric, John Trubee, was no naif when
he sent in his song-poem. He was a prankster testing the
limits of what these recording companies would accept,
and he proved the basic philosophy of this cottage industry:
they will take on everything and anything and tell you
it's great. Every song-poem submission is a potential
gold mine, every one is an undiscovered gem (or germ,
as John Muir might say), every one is a perfect candidate
for recording -- as long as you can pay for it. Despite
the literature these companies sent out that boasted about
all manner of post-release support, there would, of course,
be no follow-up at all; your phone calls would go unanswered
once your check was cashed. There would be no promotion
to radio or lucrative publishing deal, just a record --
pressed in miniscule quantities, at that -- with your
name on it as the co-writer.
* * *
At least now the song-poem writers are managing, in a
way, to enjoy the last laugh. And we're enjoying a good
one, too. Producer Milstein was introduced to the world
of song-poems by Tom Ardolino, the drummer for NRBQ. Milstein
credits Ardolino with the ultimate discovery of song-poem
music as a source of fun and high weirdness, and says
that through him he "became fascinated with the many
mysteries of song-poems." Now he can tell you all
about their incredible history at his anecdote-packed
"Through circumstance and willful
ignorance, no one had ever given song-poems any serious
consideration," Milstein explains. He's now managed
to rectify that.
Other popular artists have also demonstrated
their love for song-poems. Entertainer Penn Jillette is
a prominent collector, and animator Matt Groening is reportedly
a fan as well. Yo La Tengo have been known to cover "How
Can A Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain," among other
song-poems, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Barbara
Manning, and original riot grrrl group Two Nice Girls
have also tackled song-poem material. A San Francisco
theatre company has even mounted a stage musical called
Get Me Rodd Keith!!
Keith and many of his fellow makers of
smooth song-poem music have also been immortalized in
the recent documentary Off The Charts, featured on the
PBS series Independent Lens. The versatile, hard-working,
but ultimately troubled Keith was considered nothing short
of a musical savant by fans, friends, and family, but
he never managed to exploit his talents in the "real"
industry. He struggled with drugs and died young, jumping
or falling off a Southern California highway overpass.
His son, avant-garde tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin,
never got to know his father, but, as he discusses in
the documentary, he's followed the course of his dad's
life through his song-poem recordings and has even used
samples of Keith's tunes as a springboard for his own
While The American Song-Poem Anthology
may sound like a Top 40 countdown from the Twilight Zone,
you can be sure that none of it resembles the over-polished
product coming out of the corporate assembly line at the
other end of the music industry. These song-poems come
from people who could be your neighbors, friends, fellow
commuters, and co-workers. Or even you.
We've all got a song in our hearts.