Music News

Various Artists: The American Song-Poem Anthology

Banking on the dreams of would-be lyricists who answered want ads from "hitmakers" in the back pages of tabloid-style magazines, several low-budget song factories (based mostly in Nashville and Hollywood) once offered fame and fortune to any red-blooded Yankee willing to submit unwashed verse for "professional" studio consideration. "No special training needed," a typical pitch would read. "Write the words as you feel them. Popular, rock and roll, country, Western, R&B and sacred poems needed AT ONCE! Your songs or poems may EARN MONEY FOR YOU! We'll inform you if they qualify."

Of course, every poem qualified -- as long as it fetched $79.95 from a check that actually cleared. Once that happened, a washed-up composer (or a good one protecting his identity with a porn-sounding pseudonym like Dick Kent) would knock out a single tune in one take. Then, rinse and repeat -- ad nauseam.

A long-player at 28 tracks, The American Song-Poem Anthology cherry-picks the most unusual of these musical one-night stands ever committed to vinyl. AM rotation beware! Amid grocery lists for the color elite ("I Like Yellow Things") and crooning odes to the space program ("The Moon Men," credited to naturalist John Muir) are sonic oddities beyond comprehension: cautionary tales about the evils of masturbation ("All You Need Is a Fertile Mind") and rambling, long-winded soul cosmology ("Human Breakdown of Absurdity"). Canned arrangements make those listening to a "patriotic" offering from Midwesterner Florence Timm ("Rat a Tat Tat, America") question the very use of such an embarrassing, flag-waving monstrosity: Was it commissioned for a cheesy Republican fundraiser, or a church bake sale? One thing is certain: During the song's outro -- when the bong track finally kicks in, burblin' away in praised chorus of Ol' Glory -- you can't help but think that a few unsung hippie composers enjoyed working the assembly line that day. Even stranger bipartisan baloney follows: "Richard Nixon" dares to assert that Watergate's sacrificial lamb deserves honorary distinction, proclaiming "God in His infinite wisdom put Richard Nixon on this earth/To bring to us his heritage/One of priceless worth." And on "Jimmy Carter Says 'Yes'," vocalist Gene Marshall turns the former peanut farmer into a streetwise hepcat from the blaxploitation era. Are you down with the 39th prez?

Rodd Keith, credited with scoring "Run Spook Run" (either a campfire sing-along or the musings of a Klansman-idiot), is widely regarded as the king of the song-poem's newly documented subculture. On the bluesy "I'm Just the Other Woman," Keith affects female anguish in a lonely falsetto, embodying the spurned mistress in a southbound love triangle. (A manic-depressive who tragically killed himself, Keith is the genre's only luminary to inspire his own musical: Get Me, a forthcoming production by the San Francisco Theatre Company. )

Not that show tunes exactly flood this disc. On the disturbing "Gretchen's Dish," an über-creep with an exaggerated Lawrence Welk accent celebrates the birthday of a six-year-old with nursery rhymes that would have made Sigmund Freud shudder. And the country-flavored "Blind Man's Penis (Peace and Love)," penned by prankster John Trubee, a New Jerseyite who mailed in the most ridiculous lyrics he could dream up, tests the limits of what a recording company in those days would actually press: "Warts love my nipples/Because they are pink/Vomit on me, baby/Yeah, yeah, yeah/Ramona's titties died in hell/And I just want to kill everyone."

An endlessly fascinating scavenger hunt of dashed dreams and charlatans, Anthology confounds expectations from start to finish. Fans of outsider music like the Langley Schools Music Project can now rejoice in another batch of arch-freak tunes from hell's transistor radio.

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John La Briola