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Friday, January 06, 2012

Song-Poems: The Art of Song Sharking

Vintage Stuff Dept.: Cool and Strange Music Magazine was published from 1996 to 2003, the handiwork of multi-talented musician and writer Dana Countryman. I contributed a few articles and reviews, including this history of the song-poem. More collections have been issued since the article appeared, and there's even a fun documentary out there about the subject. More info at the article's end.


HOW ABOUT THIS for a song hit? “Can our government/Be competent?/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Can our government/Be honest?/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Can our government/Be decent and open?/As the thirty-ninth President/He has spoken, yes!/Jimmy Carter says yes!”

It may not rank up there with “Stardust” and “Louie, Louie,” but as far as Waskey Elwood Walls, Jr., was concerned, it was a sentiment worth setting to music.

Even though he had to pay someone to do it. Someone he discovered through an ad in the back of a magazine. It might have been Popular Mechanics or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Or the National Enquirer.

The ad is small but enticing. Send us your poems and – if they’re good enough – you’ll collaborate with the industry’s top composers and musicians as your poem is set to music, recorded, and submitted to major record companies. Fame, of course, and untold wealth will follow. All you need is that one big break.

Here’s the kicker: your poems are good enough. They always are. After all, you’re paying for the recording session. “People are in awe of the idea of the recording studio,” says Byron Coley, whose Carnage Press has issued three CDs of song-poem compilations. ‘They think, ‘Oh, the Rolling Stones will be in the studio tomorrow, but today musicians are in there recording my song!’”

Which is why hundreds of would-be Johnny Mercers support the song-poem industry. In fact, they’ve been doing so for nearly a hundred years, first in the form of sheet music, then on to phonograph records. And that’s where those compilation CDs originated. Thanks to an army of true believers who scour thrift shops and flea markets in search of these gems, several such collections are available. And they’re addictive. Sure, the songs are awful. But there’s a virtuosity to the awfulness that lifts them from the ranks of the merely bad.

One of the pioneers of song-poem collecting is NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, whose discoveries provided the grist for two of the Carnage Press CDs. When Ardolino and the band tour, he prowls for unusual music. Even in the unlikely setting of a hardware store. “It was a used hardware store, in 1971,” he explained, “and for some reason they’d bought a radio station’s record collection and a had a box of those records on the floor. I found an album called ‘Variety Songs for ‘69,’ on the MSR label, with song titles like ‘Richard Nixon’ and ‘Beat of the Traps.’ It was fifty cents. I bought it.”

The album jacket provided no clues to its contents, except for a list of the songs and lyricists. The back cover was blank. “God, in His infinite wisdom,” Floyd Thompson’s lyric declared, “put Richard Nixon on this earth/To bring to us his heritage/One of priceless worth.” Although we never learn whether it’s God’s or Nixon’s heritage in question, in the face of such poetic audacity it hardly matters. And the singer is frighteningly sincere, segueing from a declamation of the verse into an ecstatic chant. That same singer pulls out all stops on “Beat of the Traps”: after a honking, intonation-free sax solo, he exclaims, “The beat! The very hard! The place where rhythm/Has its start! The traps! The skins! Skins alive! Swishin’ brushes/Beatin’ sticks alive, live, live!”

As it turned out, the singer was also the arranger and keyboard artist on the album. Rodd Keith, also known as Rod Rogers, turns out to be the undisputed genius of what’s known in the industry as song sharking. Ardolino found it irresistable. “I figured out on my own what it was all about,” he said. “And then I went looking for more.”

His search took a creepy turn a few years later, when his band was playing in Hollywood, MSR’s home base. “I called MSR, which was still in business then, and asked the guy who answered if I could visit the studio. ‘Have you got a gun?’ he said. ‘This isn’t a good neighborhood.’ Then I asked if he knew Rod Rogers. ‘He was a keyboard genius,’ the guy said, ‘but you don’t want to go where he is. He’s pushing daisies.’” Ardolino didn’t try to visit MSR that trip, and the next time his band was in Hollywood, the company had vanished.

Meanwhile, he was winnowing through song-poem collections, sending best-of tapes to friends. Baffled friends, in some cases. He put his favorites together into an LP collection titled “Beat of the Traps,” which began attracting attention. As with all works of inadvertant genius, the glories of song-poems aren’t immediately revealed. Phil Milstein is curator of the American Song-Poem Music Archives, and believes that the ability to enjoy these songs “kicks in only after you’ve consumed a lot of so-called serious music. You have to get beyond a certain point of saturation.”

Milstein is working on a book about the phenomenon, tracing a fascinating history that dates back at least to 1902, when the earliest known piece of song-poem sheet music was registered with the Library of Congress. He began his own song-poem record collecting only recently, but he’s been archiving the stuff long enough to have put together a comprehensive list of the many companies that have practiced song sharking and all the known releases on their record labels. It numbers into the thousands. “It’s mind-boggling, the number of people sending in money to get these songs recorded.”

Having heard so many of the songs, Milstein concluded that “only a small percentage of them are worth listening to. Most are pretty wretched.” He helped Ardolino and Coley choose the gems that appear on two of the Carnage Press CDs, each of which is dominated by the work of Rodd Keith. “He’s the only performer who’s almost guaranteed to elevate the song to some degree,” said Milstein. “Even his losers aren’t all that bad.”

That’s why there’s a fourth CD available, this one on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, that presents an all-Keith program. “I Died Today” was compiled by tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, who has a relationship to these song-poem collections almost as bizarre as the poems themselves: he is Keith’s son.

Eskelin’s father took off when the boy was 18 months old, but the youngster grew up hearing tales of his dad’s musical prowess. “He could play any instrument, my mother said, and other relatives told similar stories. He was a larger-than-life figure, and he died when I was 15, which made him seem even more profound. But my first exposure to his music was a badly recorded cassette. Compared to what my mother remembered, it was a big disappointment.”

Keith was 37 at the time of his death, a bizarre accident in which he jumped or fell from an overpass and landed on the Hollywood Freeway, where he was hit by several vehicles. Two weeks earlier, Keith had talked about a movie he wanted to make in which the protagonist jumped to his death from an overpass. “He seemed not to know how to focus his talents,” wrote Eskelin, “his difficulties exacerbated by drug use and a growing disinterest in the ‘real’ world.” Keith was fond of hallucinogens, alternating bursts of studio work with days of complete inattention.

When he did go into the studio to record song-poems, he was unable to stop himself from putting everything he had into what was essentially hack work. “You have to get a sense of what the parameters were,” said Eskelin. “Sure, a lot of this music sounds bad on the surface, but Rodd was putting together up to 30 of these a day, something that could reduce even the most proficient musician to jello.” Most of the songs were recorded in one take, with the musicans sight-reading their hastily scribbled parts. “These were professional studio musicians in L.A. doing off-the-books, non-union jobs. You hired whoever wasn’t busy that day.”

Rodd Keith got started in music by accompanying his father, an itinerant preacher, in revival shows throughout the midwest. The boy became proficient at several instruments, with keyboards the mainstay, and continued to play the gospel circuit after he married and settled in Kansas in the late ‘50s. His taste for progressive jazz inspired unusual harmonies on the church organ, however, and parishioners began to complain. Rodd hit the road, leaving behind his wife and infant son. There’s no record of how he ended up in the song-sharking business, but he left behind an impressive legacy.

“Sure, we don’t have recordings of what he was really capable of doing,” Eskelin said, “but what we do have is incredible in itself.” “I Died Today” is a carefully assembled tribute. “I had about 200 45s and a bunch of LPs, and I listened to everything and sifted it down to 26 tracks. Milstein and other people helped, but I made all the final decisions. I think it gives a balanced picture of what Rodd was able to do. Sure, I know it’s limited because they’re all song-poems, but I didn’t want the whole thing to be regarded as a joke.”

Humor is a strong component, “but it’s not the roll-on-the-floor type. And beyond that, there’s always something else going on. There are many other qualities to the songs, and what really grabs me are the conflicting elements. Some of the songs are quite good by conventional standards, and they run the stylistic gamut–marches, rock, jazz, you name it – so you get a very wide picture of what Rodd could do.”

Eskelin discovered the song-poem-collecting community somewhat accidentally, through a catalogue that displayed “Beat of the Traps” and described the “your poem set to music” process. Then he noticed Rod Rogers’ name on the record cover. He tracked down a copy at a local record fair, and met Byron Coley in the process. “I don’t think he believed me at first. It had been such a private affair for me, but to find other people had discovered this – I found this to be incredibly moving.”

“I’m at a record swap meet,” said Coley, “and this guy says to me, ‘I’m Rod Rogers’ son.’ I was speechless.” Coley also has tremendous respect for Keith’s work. “He was a mysterious character in all ways, but what a gifted musician. He could crank out these arrangments all day long.”

In fact, one of the CDs lets you hear two versions of the title song, “I’m Just the Other Woman.” Keith’s first setting of Mary Clignett’s whiny lyric is accompanied by the bizarre sound of a piano recorded backwards, almost enough to distract you from the fact that Keith sings the lyric in a strained falsetto. Clignett objected; Rodd re-did it, with a more subdued saxophone in place of the piano.

Get all four CDs. Nothing less will satisfy the craving this music engenders. Hear Bobbi Blake sing Chester T. Finley’s “Betsy and Her Goat.” Marvel at Thomas J. Guygax, Sr.’s, lyric to “At the Time,” in which recognizeable English words are arranged into what seem to be sentences without actually making any sense. Or Dom Betro’s “The Moon Men,” sung by Gene Marshall with a conviction that trenscends the total lack of lyric scansion. Then be thankful that these poets were willing to put money behind their work.

Song poem records–and there are lots of them out there – are suddenly very desirable, and new-to-the-genre collectors are going up against veterans like Cool & Strange Music Magazine’s own cover artist Wayno, who drew the cover for Carnage Press’s “Makers of Smooth Music” CD.

Like Waskey Elwood Walls, Jr. He was no one-hit wonder: he also penned “What a Man, a Man’s Man! Jimmy Carter,” but it’s as the author of “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” that he’s now enshrined in song-poem history. On the back of every Carnage Press song-poem CD is note encouraging copyright holders to contact the company to arrange for royalty payments. “Nobody,” said Coley, “has been in touch.”

Perhaps it was enough simply to hear those lyrics rendered into song, sharing the record with a few dreamy-eyed friends. Yet it’s not as if this new-found interest in the song-poet’s art hasn’t reached the world of the poets themselves. “Someone sent me a clipping,” Ardolino said, “from the hometown newspaper of the guy who wrote the Jimmy Carter song. And there’s a picture of him holding my ‘Beat of the Traps’ collection. The article treated him like a local hero. Isn’t that great?”

Cool and Strange Music Magazine, November 1998


Some of the CDs mentioned have gone out of print, but there's a terrific blog by song poem enthusiast Bob Purse that features a song poem every week – and he's got over 150 up so far. But beware. Once you start immersing yourself in these things, music will never seem the same.

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