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 website.
"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 compositions.
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.