Gary Forney, an Iowan who performed his "Chicken Insurrection" at a folk festival.
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Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story
PBS; premiere Tuesday at 108 p.m.
Check local listings.
The American

Song-Poem Anthology
Bar/None, for release Tuesday.
Arts & Leisure (Feb. 9, 2003)


February 9, 2003

Just Plain Folks Write Songs, Too
By JON PARELES

T'S called song-sharking, and it starts with classified ads in supermarket tabloids, comic books or how-to-write magazines that announce: "Poems/Lyrics Wanted by Music Company. Great Opportunity for Your Works, Needed by American Hit Songwriters. Win Cash, Recording and Publishing Awards!"

Fat chance. But for decades, people have been sending in lyrics, also known as song-poems, to faraway post office boxes. The would-be songwriter soon gets back an invariably positive "evaluation," offering the opportunity, for a price, to have professional musicians compose, sing and record a song with those precious lyrics.

The writer makes choices — fast or slow, male or female vocals, suggested genre — and then, for a few hundred dollars, receives the result of these impersonal, long-distance collaborations: an original song that used to arrive as a 45-rpm single and now comes on a cassette or CD. For an additional fee, songs might be added to an anthology album. Family and friends dutifully praise the budding songwriter. And the songs, or the overwhelming majority of them, go no further.

Most deserve oblivion. They're trite sentiments set to generic music. Yet precisely because song-poem hacks will sing absolutely anything, among the tens of thousands of song-poems recorded every year are a few so improbable, so skewed, so far beyond the imagination of more professional songwriters that they have a fractured charm all their own: songs like "Rat a Tat Tat, America," "Little Rug Bug" or "All You Need Is a Fertile Mind." Like other amateur and outsider art that has lately been reclaimed — from thrift-shop paintings to ditties by schizophrenics — they can make observers think twice about what, if anything, separates naïveté and ineptitude from inspiration.

Those titles are from a new album, "The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush" (Bar/None). Its release coincides with the broadcast on Tuesday of "Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story," a documentary by Jamie Meltzer that is part of the PBS series "Independent Lens." The song-poem creators are inching closer to the general audience they never reached.

"I liked the bravery of all these ordinary people writing and expressing themselves even though nobody's telling them what they do is worth a damn," Mr. Meltzer said. "The musicians and writers were kind of in the same boat. They were all struggling, and their dreams may or may not come true. But when the musicians are working on their songs, they give it their all. That redeems the whole thing."

Gene Merlino, a singer for hire in Los Angeles since 1953, sang song-poems when he wasn't doing vocal backups for Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and television variety shows. Mr. Merlino says he has sung more song-poem demos "than anyone who ever lived," sightreading them in sessions that knocked out dozens of songs in a day.

"I guess everybody wants to write a hit song," he said. "It's bred in American culture. I did many thousands of demos, and I don't think any of them — not a one — would have qualified to be a hit."

Among the song sheets he kept were "Hiccup Hangover," "The Echo of Your Eyes" and "Please, No More Ties for Christmas." Others were crumpled up moments after they were recorded, for studio games of wastepaper basketball.

People write song-poems about love, God, family, America and current events, from elections to terrorist attacks. "They don't know anything about music, so they write what they feel," Mr. Merlino said. "There's stuff that's poignant, stuff that's hilarious, stuff that's stupid, the gamut of human emotions. But most of the songs were from people writing about their own little world."

Recordings are artifacts that have a way of finding a second life. That's what happened to song-poems when Tom Ardolino, the drummer for the rock band NRBQ, picked up an anthology album, "Variety Songs of '69," among the remnants of a radio station at a hardware-suplus store in Kingston, N.Y. After hearing just a few song-poems, including "Richard Nixon" (a tribute) and the drum extravaganza "Beat of the Traps," Mr. Ardolino was hooked. "As much as the craziness, I like the fact that it's really what people felt," he said.

Mr. Ardolino started looking out for song-poems at thrift stores and yard sales, and he added song-poems to tapes he shared with friends like Phil Milstein, who convinced him that song-poems deserved to be reissued. Mr. Milstein found a willing label, Carnage Press, that has released four compilations: "Beat of the Traps," "I'm Just the Other Woman," "Makers of Smooth Music" and "The Human Breakdown of Absurdity." (Songs from those albums reappear on the Bar/None anthology.) And in 1996, John Zorn's Tzadik label released "I Died Today," a collection from the undisputed star of the song-poem composers, Rodd Keith, alias Rod Rogers, whose real name was Rodney Eskelin.

Those albums made their way to disc jockeys, fans of peculiar Americana and musicians like Yo La Tengo, who have been known to play the song-poem "How Can a Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain" on stage. Irwin Chusid's book "Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music" (A Cappella Books/Chicago Review Press, 2000 ) includes a chapter on song-poems.

Mr. Ardolino's friend and abettor, Mr. Milstein, now runs an exhaustive Web site devoted to song-poems, www.aspma.com. There's also an Internet radio station playing song-poems at www .live365.com (search for the station name "Send Us Your Lyrics). Magic Key, a song-poem company featured in the documentary, has songs like "Soulmate of a Different Timeline" and "Me and Buddha in a Red Toyota" online at www.mp3.com /redrockrecords. ("Off the Charts" shows Magic Key's owner-operator, Art Kaufman, taking a lyric from envelope opening to completed song in 49 minutes.)

With all the attention, song-poem albums are now more likely to show up on Ebay than in thrift stores. "I knew when we started putting them out that it was going to be the end of finding them," Mr. Ardolino said.

The twisted pleasure of song-poems comes from the mingling of oddity and expediency, of conventional forms holding improbable contents, of words their authors wanted to immortalize and music that struggles to contain them. Like indie rock, song-poems have the low-fi flavor of songs recorded in a take or two in low-budget studios, wrong notes and all. Yet there's also the craftsmanship of musicians trying to satisfy themselves.

Rodd Keith/Rod Rogers/Rodney Eskelin turned many of his song-poems into unlikely showcases. In songs like "Beat of the Traps" or "Hippy Happy Land," he belts the lyrics with soulful sincerity while the music wanders into polytonal realms verging on avant-gardism. His son, Ellery Eskelin, is a leading jazz saxophonist, but he never got to know his father. The Eskelins separated when Ellery was a toddler, and Rodney died in a fall from a highway overpass in 1974, at the age of 37.

"Rodd managed to put something of himself in it," said Ellery Eskelin, who has hundreds of his father's song-poem recordings. "He didn't have to go as far as he did. He saw it as a form of musical prostitution, but much of his output and other people's output under those conditions turned out things that go contrary to what you would expect.

"They were churned out so quickly, and they were completely artificial in how they were conceived. They're a borderline scam. But when I hear a song that has a screwed-up meter in it, or obviously the form is cracked or doesn't quite fit right — something that might be considered bush league, the mistake of an amateur songwriter — to me it actually has a formal beauty, whether it was intentional or not. Who knows or who cares? You might want to laugh on the one hand and you might be touched by the honesty or the beauty at the same time."

The lyricists, Mr. Meltzer said, may not get the exact song they dreamed of, but they're satisfied enough to keep returning. The documentary shows some repeat customers, among them Caglar Juan Singletary (with a song, "Nonviolent Taekwondo Troopers," in praise of martial arts and his bicycle) and Gary Forney, a modest Iowan who's emboldened to perform his own "Chicken Insurrection" at a folk festival.

"We'd get letters," Mr. Merlino said, "and 98, 99 percent of all the people were very happy just getting back their little 45. Some of the letters were silly, but some really got to you. A young kid writing about running away from home, or a guy who's in jail for life. These song-poems can have more in the way of humanity than the guys who write love songs that become hits."

At a time when home computers can double as recording studios, hip-hop has lowered the threshold for acceptable pop melody and self-consciousness pervades pop culture, the peak years of the song-poem may have passed. But the ads still run and the writers still write, hoping to strike it rich as a hitmaker or simply to let out the songs in their hearts.

"We never looked at these things before we did them, because we wanted to be surprised," Mr. Merlino said. "And every time I'd turn over a sheet of music, it would be an experience."  


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