Music Article

Voices of America

How you can be a songwriter -- for a fee. For 50 years, ordinary folk have paid to have their verse set to music -- now, song-poems are being hailed as art

Yo La Tengo | FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN Yo La Tengo's Kaplan bangs a drum for song-poems
Image credit: Ira Kaplan Photograph by Silvia Otte
FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN Yo La Tengo's Kaplan bangs a drum for song-poems

Hey, anyone out there remember Bill Joy's 1980 song ''How Long Are You Staying''? It's the one that went ''Disco, disco, disco/I am going to Mount Kisco/I am going to buy Crisco/To bake a cake so I can/Disco, disco, disco.'' Never heard it? Don't feel bad. Neither has just about 100 percent of the world's population.

''How Long Are You Staying'' was the result of a peculiar meeting of what might loosely be called art and what can definitely be termed commerce that came about when housewife Mary Urrutia sent her words in to a Hollywood outfit called MSR, which in turn set them to the cheesiest disco backbeat ever. It's a prime example of what's now being called a song-poem, so named because of the advertisements companies like MSR used to run in such publications as Superman and Popular Mechanics offering -- for a fee -- to turn your poems into songs. Since the late '40s, thousands of song-poems have been produced by small concerns, mostly based in L.A., New York, and Nashville. And, as ''How Long Are You Staying'' proves, it doesn't matter whether you send in inspired verse or ineffable doggerel; if your check clears, you're a songwriter.

Don't look now, but song-poems just may be the next hipster craze. On Feb. 11, Bar/None Records will release ''The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush,'' the first in its series of CDs collecting noteworthy song-poems. Also this month, PBS is airing a documentary about the song-poem industry, ''Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story,'' by director Jamie Meltzer.

And there's already a small circle of celebrity song-poem enthusiasts out there eager to find vintage compilations like ''The Now Sounds of Today.'' One such collector is Penn Jillette of the avant-garde magic duo Penn and Teller. ''These things are glimpses into another person's heart,'' says Jillette. ''If you don't like song-poems, their touchingness and beauty, I don't wanna know you.''

Ira Kaplan of indie-rockers Yo La Tengo is another fan. His band has covered a number of these wacky gems over the years, both live and on disc. ''At our Hanukkah show this year, we gave out a CD of Christmas songs,'' says Kaplan, ''and we put a song-poem called 'Santa Claus Goes Modern' on there. Some of these things are really powerful -- the collision between the naivete of the lyricists and the occasionally inspired playing of the musicians often adds up to a wonderful accident of fate.''

Phil Milstein, who produced the Bar/None anthology and curates the American Song-Poem Music Archives, is probably the world's foremost authority on the subject (check out his exhaustively documented website on the subject at aspma.com). ''Song-poems are human expression without a lot of filter,'' says Milstein. ''They're this very odd kind of corrupted collaboration that can produce a really wide range of interesting results. You never know what you're gonna get.''

He's not kidding. The best tunes on ''Big Wood and Brush,'' most of which were recorded in the '60s and '70s, aren't so much cases of so-bad-they're-good as so-weird-they're-great.

''Human Breakdown of Absurdity,'' sung by a loungey-sounding combo named Norm Burns & Singers with words by the poetic duo Ove Lid and Lew Tobin, is an attempt at a Dylanesque protest tune rife with howlers like ''The tyrants of business in Wall Street/Will moan of the sudden heat/When they try to swindle the insane one/Who realizes that he has became one.'' In ''Gretchen's New Dish,'' crooner Dick Kent adopts an absurd Teutonic accent to sing Chester T. Finley's cracked nursery rhyme: ''In the merry month of May/Gretchen's six years old today/Brings from school a little dish/And a card with happy wish/From a boy across the way/Gretchen full of doo-doo.'' And ''All You Need Is a Fertile Mind,'' sung by Gene Marshall (a.k.a. Gene Merlino) and written by one Francis ''Sonny'' Fernandes, may even top the Who's ''Pictures of Lily'' in the pantheon of onanistic anthems: ''Build up that sexual impetus/You don't have to find a woman like Venus/When all you need is a fertile mind to fulfill your utmost desire.''

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