Tuesday, July 21, 2009
"Song poems" have been a favorite musical genre of mine, since I discovered them years ago on a collection called "Beat of the Traps: MSR Madness Volume 1"
Song poem recordings are roughly analogous to the vanity publishing industry, where anything you write, and are willing to pay to have published, will be accepted by the publishing company. Owners of song-poem labels would place ads in the back of comic books, tabloids etc. to send in your poems. Some potential customers would send in music as well, though usually they would just send lyrics. No matter how poor, strange or unmarketable the lyrics were, the customer would get a letter saying that that their submission was excellent and potentially a hit. For a fee the company would press up a small quantity of records, and promise to promote them,although records were never properly promoted since the likelihood of the record actually becoming a hit was near zero. None of the vast number of song-poems out there has ever become a hit.
Once the deal is made, the music is quickly composed,arranged and recorded. The musicians on the recordings are often top-notch studio musicians, since they are recording music they haven't really rehearsed or in some cases have never seen before. The vocalist often hasn't even read the lyrics until he or she is singing them. Some fit broadly into another genre, such as the disco song poem "Jimmy Carter Says Yes", but others seem to sound like nothing except for other song poems. Most song poem recordings have insipid and banal lyrics and aren't worth hearing, but there are a number I love either because they have totally bizarre lyrics, ideas, and subject matter in combination with the hard to describe music.
PBS made a pretty good documentary on song poems called "Off the Charts" The film includes an interview with Gene Marshall ,who is featured on countless song poem records. Marshall worked with a number of successful musicians, including Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. A song poem recording session is included.in the film. The highlights of the film are the interviews with several writers of song poems. None of the people l interviewed seem overly concerned that their records didn't sell; they are happy just have their songs recorded, The movie is touching; sad and funny in places. It's a tribute to the human spirit, and well worth watching.
Here are several song poem recordings:
A Gene Marshall recoding with indescribable lyrics/ "We are the men counting sheep... we're not Little Bo Peep..."
Gene Marshall - "Jimmy Carter Says Yes"
Rodd Keith was considered the best song poem performer. He was extremely talented, and eccentric, and had major substance abuse issues. he either fell or jumped from an overpass onto the Hollywood Freeway in 1974. Rodd's son, Ellery Eskelin, is featured in "Off the Charts" and wrote this article about his dad.
Rodd Keith - Space
Rodd Keith - "Like the Lord Said"
One of the few song-poem records collectible for it's musical value, it's a major "Northern Soul" collectible
WFMU's Beware of the Blog has posted many the song poems that used to be on the American
Song-Poem Music Archive
A good overview of song poems from the American Song-Poem Archives