Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Song Poem

During the NPR Training Program, I was listening to an episode of This American Life (#73, "Blame It On Art," which you can listen to here), and the third act (from about the thirty to forty-five minute mark of the episode) was about a jazz saxophonist named Ellery Eskelin.

Actually, the episode was really about Eskelin and his father, a man named Rodd Keith--a man who Eskelin had known only during the first eighteen months of his life. Keith passed away in 1974.

Eskelin had been told for years that his father had been a fantastic musician, and after Keith's death, his grandparents sent him a cassette tape when he was in his teens. He played it and it was his father singing a song called "Hippie Happy Land."

He was, to say the least, disappointed.

As the story develops, though, it turns out that Rodd Keith had been considered a musical genius--of the song poem.

I'd never heard of a song poem before, but when I found out what they were, it was one of those "down the rabbit hole" moments for me (and maybe for you, too).

For over a century, companies have been placing advertisements like this in magazines and newspapers:
POEMS Urgently needed to set to music!
Write clever poems, catchy rhymes, Achieve
fame, money in popular music field! Send
sample poems. Free evaluation.

That was from the March 1955 issue of Popular Mechanics (you can see a scan of the ad here).

This was all a scam, of course. There was no "fame" to be had. Someone would send in a poem, the company would record it as a song (complete with musical arrangement), and they'd send the recording to the customer. It was the work of a true genius, of course, and for an additional fee, the company promised to promote the record. It was no surprise that these promises were rarely fulfilled, and the industry and practices were generally referred to as "song-sharking."

Thousands and thousands of these poems have been turned into songs, though, and one of the pre-eminent musicians of the industry was Rodd Keith. He recorded up to thirty songs a day, writing the arrangements, playing the instruments, and singing.

Fifteen years after hearing "Hippie Happy Land," Eskelin found an advertisement in a music catalog for a CD compilation of his dad's performances. When he received a copy, he began to realize that his father really had been a musical genius, in his own way--he was taking these mostly very bad poems and giving them as much life as he could, often in very skilled and innovative ways.

The story was so fascinating that I've been trying to find additional information on song poems, and there are some excellent resources to read. The best one I've found is The American Song-Poem Music Archive, where you can see scans of song poem solicitation mailings here, along with dozens of links leading to additional information here. It's an excellent way to while away an afternoon. Or two.

Wikipedia, of course, has an entry, and it's here.

Ellery Eskelin has also created a website that chronicles the life and recordings of Rodd Keith, and it's full of interesting information as well. You can see that site here.

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