Outsider Art with a Professional Sheen


otcAmerica has always had people dying for a taste of the limelight and others willing to delude them for a healthy profit. PBS takes a funny and moving look at one such scheme in Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (viewable in full on Hulu).

The song-poem hustle goes something like this: An ad is placed in music magazines purporting to seek original lyrics for radio play and possible fame and fortune. Naïve but sincere poets send in their lyrics for a “free evaluation,” which inevitably finds them to be of high merit. A billboard hit is just around the corner! But one catch, the aspiring songwriter needs to front a fee for the recording costs. After the sum is paid, a group of studio musicians carve a melody out of the lyrics, improves a jam and record a CD (vinyl 45 back in the day) in under an hour. The CD is shipped to the aspiring songwriter and the musicians move on to the next song in the stack.

The half-assed but professionally recorded music meshes discordantly with the bizarre lyrics of oddballs, jokesters and backwoods Christians. The result is truly strange and entertaining. Sample song topics: Santa Claus utilizing a flying saucer to deliver Xmas gifts, a romantic attraction to Annie Oakley and the greatness of Jimmy Carter.

Further oddness is provided by the seemingly random pairing of lyrics and musical genres. John Trubee’s joke lyrics, written to test the editorial policies of the song-poem studios (“Warts love my nipples because they are pink / vomit on me baby, yeah, yeah, yeah”), becomes a Johnny Cash-esque country ballad. Gene Marshall’s earnest “Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes!’” becomes a disco-funk tune:

Can a government
Be decent and open?
As the thirty-ninth president
He has spoken
…Yes! Jimmy Carter says “Yes!”

The song-poem mills have been cranking out these tunes for decades, but in recent years our cultural love for pop artifacts has led to interest from record collectors and outsider art connoisseurs. This one-hour documentary takes a non-judgmental look at the writers, performers and collectors involved in song-poems. In the process, it gives an authentic, amusing, but ultimately heartfelt look into an odd corner of American life.

Lincoln Michel‘s fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, VICE, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He is the former editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and a founding editor of Gigantic. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and Tiny Crimes, an anthology of flash noir. His debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was published by Coffee House Press in 2015. He teaches fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @thelincoln. More from this author →