Song-Poem Tributes to the King
Elvis Week kicks off in Memphis today so it seems appropriate to mark the occasion with some truly unique tributes to the King.
Like many of my more outré recent musical discoveries it was Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour that introduced me to the song-poem phenomenon. On his Presidents Day show Bob played a remarkable track about a remarkable man called Jimmy Carter Says Yes. It’s the sort of song you can’t imagine anyone ever making. Which is true of most song-poems. If the concept is unfamiliar to you here’s Bob’s explanation from the radio show:
Have you ever seen those ads in the back of magazines that say things like “Do you have what it takes to become a songwriter?” or “Poems wanted – we’ll set your poems to music”. Well these are companies that are one step away from a scam. Everybody thinks they can write a poem and everybody wants to be in show business. So these companies would exploit that fact and charge between $75 to $400 to set the poems to music. Instead of being paid to make records you would pay them to make the records. A lot of people call this process song-sharking. What’s interesting about it is is the songs quite often are a mixture of very sincere but unschooled lyric writing and the music is usually made by cynical studio musicians who just have it on a conveyor belt sometimes making as many as 12 songs an hour. Back in the day they’d print up just a few copies of the records (nowadays I’m guessing it would be a CD) and send it off to writer and that would be the last you’d hear from them; they’d be looking for the next group of suckers. Quite often those records end up at the Goodwill store and certain record collectors make a point of collecting these.
Phil Milstein’s wonderful American Song-Poem Music Archives has more detailed background and also puts forward the case for the “unique pleasures the good ones have to offer”. These include “the complex interactions at play between pro and am; cynicism and naïvete; talent stunted and craftlessness given wing”.
But what’s this got to do with Elvis? Well, since songs about both celebrities and the hereafter are both common song-poem topics it’s not surprising that Elvis’ death prompted a surge of material from America’s amateur lyricists.
A few weeks ago I watched the PBS documentary Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story. In it one of the contributors says that quite a few LPs that compiled song-poem tributes to Elvis were released right after his death. I found one of them, Gone But Not Forgotten, posted on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog. You can hear the whole thing there but here’s a taster.
Gina Val – The Legend of Elvis Presley
Jim Ward – Elvis Was The Biggest Thing
Matt Vincent – Mansion to Mansion
Pure kitsch I know but no matter what you think of these songs’ musical quality what’s undeniable is that their lyrics have been evidently penned by hardcore fans. I think it’s this heart-on-sleeve sincerity that’s most enjoyable.
If you’re now intrigued by song-poems WFMU has dozens more on their wondrous blog. There are also a couple of commercial compilations available. The documentary Off The Charts is really great; I bought my DVD for a few quid on Amazon, PBS have also made it available to watch for free on YouTube.
As always, please share your thoughts below.