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Song poem usually refers to song lyrics that have been set to music for a fee. This practice, which has long been disparaged in the music industry, was also known as song sharking and was conducted by several businesses throughout the 20th century in North America.
Production and promotion
The business of recording song poems was promoted through small display ads in popular magazines, comic books, tabloids, men's adventure journals and similar publications with a headline reading (essentially) Send in Your Poems - Songwriters Make Thousands of Dollars - Free Evaluation. The term lyrics was avoided because it was assumed potential customers would not understand what the term meant. Those who sent their poetry to one of the production companies usually received notice by mail that their work was worthy of recording by professional musicians, along with a proposal to do so in exchange for a fee. The early 20th century versions of this business involved setting the words to music and printing up sheet music from inexpensively engraved plates.
In producing the recordings, the melodies were either improvised or recycled and musicians often recorded dozens of songs per recording session using minimal resources, often in one take. Some of the companies recorded new vocals over pre-recorded music backing tracks, using the same music tracks hundred of times. The recordings were then duplicated on 45 RPM vinyl singles or on individual cassette tapes, or they were released on compilation LPs with dozens of other songs by amateur lyric writers. Copies were sent to the customer. Promises that they would also be sent to radio stations or music industry executives were rarely if ever kept, partly because the recordings would not have been taken seriously by professionals.
For some listeners, unusual, amateur lyrics in recordings made by rushed or at least marginally professional musicians almost half a century earlier offer a unique, discordant sound heard nowhere else. The intensity and naiveté of the lyrics combined with the workaday listlessness of the musical performances creates a tension that fuels whatever artistic merit may be found in these relics. Many of the lyrics involve subject matter relating to the passing fads of the day, and thus provide a window into a past pop culture.
In 2003, a documentary about the industry, Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story, was aired on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. It has since been released on DVD, and the soundtrack was released on CD.
The 2007 Craig Zobel drama Great World of Sound depicts a modern-day version of "song sharking," and featured scenes where real unsigned musicians audition for the actors portraying the ersatz music producers; these artists ultimately had their songs properly licensed and featured in the finished film.
Tom Ardolino, former drummer for the band NRBQ, curated several compilation CDs of the material.[clarification needed] His work, along with the efforts of others such as musicologist Irwin Chusid of WFMU radio, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and magician Penn Jillette has allowed these scraps to reach a level of notoriety unthinkable in their own time.
Caglar Singletary is probably the best known songpoet, his most famous composition being "Annie Oakley." But among the professionals paid to record these songs, the "Mozart" of the song poem genre is often said to be Rodd Keith. Several compilations of his made-for-hire song poem recordings have been released on CD with comments by his son, avant-garde saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. Eskelin never actually met his father, but was often told that his father was some kind of musical genius.
- Hollywood Gold, various artists (Rainbow Records) (one single, one cassette, 22 LPs)
- MSR Madness series:
- The Beat of The Traps, Various artists (Carnage Press)(LP only)
- The Makers of Smooth Music, Various artists (Carnage Press)
- The Human Breakdown of Absurdity, Various artists (Carnage Press)
- I'm Just The Other Woman, Various artists (Carnage Press)
- The American Song Poem Anthology: Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood and Brush?, Various artists (Bar/None)
- The American Song Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?, Various artists (Bar/None)
- I Died Today, Rodd Keith (Tzadik)
- Ecstacy To Frenzy, Rodd Keith (Tzadik)
- Saucers in the Sky, Rodd Keith (Roaratorio)
- Off The Charts: The Song Poem Story, Various artists (Red Rock Records - film soundtrack)
- Song Poem Hits of 2007, David Dubowski One Man Band (Crazy Dave Records)
- Song Poem Hits of 2007 Vol. 2, David Dubowski One Man Band (Crazy Dave Records)
- Song Poem Hits of 2009, David Dubowski One Man Band (Crazy Dave Records)
- NERDIST Podcast Episode 130: Penn & Teller; Penn discusses his involvement along with Tom Ardolino & Mark Mothersbaugh with collecting song poems (starting at 05:53 in the podcast).
- song poem music
- WFMU-FM Radio Station
- Shirley & Spinoza Internet Radio
- Extraordinary Song-Poem Service
- Surreal O'Rama Song Poem Contest- Winners have their words set to music and recorded FREE
- Over 20 song-poems on YouTube by The Original Crazy Dave
- Episode of This American Life featuring an interview with Ellery Eskelin's on his father's music