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Songs in the Key of Z

Songs in the Key of Z
Irwin Chusid
Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music
Chicago: A Capella Books, 2000.

Various Artists
Songs in the Key of Z, Vol. 1-2
Audio CD on the Cherry Red label, released in 2005

While researching the music of The Shaggs, I came across a book called Songs in the Key of Z. Its author, Irwin Chusid, has totally nailed the concept of a tacky treasure when applied to music. He has also produced a two-CD recording of examples of what he calls “outsider music.”

The music represented is diverse, and it isn’t hard to imagine a group of individuals listening to the songs and coming up with completely different favorites. So, I’ll just share with you a few of my favorites, for what it’s worth.

“Curly Toes,” artist unknown. This is an a capella striptease song by a woman with a Southern accent, who bellows the praises of her “mighty fine man” while removing her black panty hose. I’m convinced that the melody was stolen from one of those Appalachian songs that can be traced back to England, but the lyrics must have been ad libbed. And therein lies much of the song’s tacky charm.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” Shooby Taylor. This man, known as the Human Horn, is a scat master with his own vocabulary. When he gets into a song, his unbridled enthusiasm either makes you laugh or smile with admiration. He just doesn’t hold back on the “shraw daw,” the “pwiddley doo dot,” or my personal favorite, the “poppy poppy poppy poppy doppy doppy doppy doppy,” which is a sure sign that he’s in the zone with his music.

“Cousin Mosquito #1” and “Cousin Mosquito #2," Congress-Woman Malinda Jackson Parker. This former member of Liberia’s equivalent of Congress was an independently wealthy eccentric who recorded her own music. Two songs on the compilation contain her efforts to inform the public of the disease-spreading potential of the mosquito. #1 is remarkable because Parker utters the word “cousin” about 204 times during the three and a half minute song. #2 is remarkable because Parker has adapted Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor to yet another treatise on the dangers of the mosquito. She only says the word “cousin” about two dozen times in this song, which is more than twice as long as the first one. Go figure.

“Walking on the Moon,” Lucia Pamela. The way she sings about it, the moon sounds like a great place. And she should know...that’s where she says this song was recorded. Like many of the songs on this CD, it lacks a certain musical proficiency that you expect from a recording artist. But the song is so charming, I like it anyway.

The book is a fascinating read, as it raises a number of questions about mainstream entertainment industry. Some of the musicians’ work is the product of their own mental illnesses, and Chusid acknowledges the potential for exploitation in the presentation of their music. But he never stoops to making fun of his subjects. For example, I came away from the book with a new appreciation of Tiny Tim’s talents, something I didn’t expect to get out of the book. At first, I listened to the music with curiosity. But lately, I find myself playing some of the songs just because they are so wackily wonderful.

Copyright © 2000-2010, Julie Mangin. All Rights Reserved. April 2, 2016