Friday, April 10, 2009

My First Song-Poem

At first, today, my plan was to share this record because it seemed like the natural choice for Holy Week. And that thought still applies, but while I was making the files, I realized that if I share this EP, then I'll also want to share the story behind it. Because, you see, this was the first song-poem I ever owned, even if I didn't know that's what it was for around 20 years. The story goes back to 1976.

It was early June, and I was almost 16. With my oldest and closest friend, John, I went to the local school fair. This was an end-of-the-year event at the grade school we had both attended, with small carnival rides, midway games, raffles and the like. It was a neighborhood tradition that we'd been going to since we were toddlers.

That year, they had a record booth: put a ticket on a number, and when the spinner stops, the person who had their ticket on that number won a few 45's. Every few turns, the prize was an album. They had boxes and boxes of singles and albums, all of them no doubt cut-outs or radio rejects. John and I spent most of our money at this booth, then returned home to listen to some new records.

I remember very little about this listening session, except that we thought most of our "winnings" were crappy. In particular, I remember not liking an album I had won, "Another Green World" by Brian Eno.

(In fact, we later took at least half of these records, including "Another Green World" and conducted experiments outside, flinging them as high as we could into the air, over various substances (pavement, grass, decking) and seeing what would happen when they landed. It was a very hot day - probably around 100 degrees, and I remember that we got one record to embed itself about an inch into a tennis court.)

But this record, on the Halmark label, got my attention quickly, and held it. John was mesmerized, as well. It was so very.... weird. It wasn't very good, but it was bad in its own special way. Songs began with obvious tape slippage, or ended suddenly before fading out. There were names and addresses on the label, for each song. There were two deeply religious tracks, which was not unusual, except that there were two non-religious tracks on the flip side. The tracks sounded as if they belonged in the 78 era, and even with that thought, they were pretty damn poor in sound quality and vocal performance. This one I kept.

Flash forward two decades, to my discovery (via Dr. Demento) of song-poems, my visits to the song-poem website, and my subsequent exchanges of e-mails and cassette tapes with Phil Milstein. Once I learned the names of the major song-poem labels, I made a beeline to the thousands of 45's in my basement, and started looking for those unique label names. My recollection is that I found I owned two: an EP on Columbine and this EP on Halmark.

Suddenly, the record made perfect sense. Halmark, the label which took old, existing multitrack backing tracks and shoehorned their customers lyrics on top of them. Halmark, the label which, more often than not, didn't credit they're singers, but instead, listed the customers names and addresses. Halmark, the label which was notable, even among song-poem labels, for cheapness and hackwork.

Here, in all its glory, is the first song poem I ever owned. The first track is fairly nondescript, and is titled, "Be God's Child":

The second track is "The Man Called Jesus". This was the track I had the initial impulse to share today. What I like about this one, aside from the general over-the-top nature of it, and the fact that I find it to have a particularly sad and dreary sound - not what you'd want for a song celebrating Jesus' role in your life - is that it appears that the backing track chosen for this song was quite a bit longer than the lyric, so at the end, they had the singer repeat the line "he brings me joy, joy, joy" over and over again. Have a taste:

Side two of the EP leads off with another track which doesn't really do that much for me, "I See Stardust In Your Eyes":

Finally, the killer tune from the EP, "Life is a Flame". This was part of the ASPMA website's MP3 downloads, so I'm sure it circulates between collectors, but I'm including it here, both for completeness, and because it is a singularly weird record. The backing track is SO thick with emotion, the words fit so poorly in places, the vocal performance is stellar, in that Halmark way, and the lyrics are flowery to the point of ridiculous. I'm fond of the following, fairly non-musical line:

"Once again, I sit in wonderment, tormenting the ashes of what was once a glowing ember..."

And my favorite of all:

"Quenched.... not by brisk breezes - Quenched by gushing waters, not by stamping feet"

Now I guess technically, "quenching a fire" doesn't have to mean water, but isn't that the way everyone uses it? Has anyone ever spoken of quenching a fire by stamping on it, or having a the breeze quench a fire?

Anyway, here's the track, and I'll dedicate this posting to my old friend John. That early summer was the last time we were close friends, and I've probably seen him less then five or six times since the fall of 1976.


Sammy Reed said...

These aren't working, either. Dang, I'd like to hear your first song-poem record.
The first one I got was a Halmark EP, too. It was from a gospel station, and one of the songs was a Jesus song. I didn't find out about song-poems (or namely, see the ASPMA site) until shortly after I got rid of that record, but I did manage to copy the most intriguing song from it, which I now have on a CD, "China Dolly". Shortly after I found the ASPMA site, there were a few Hollywood Artists EP's at a yard sale in my neighborhood, which I dutifly bought. I've gotten more song-poem records since then. So, I know better now.

Sammy Reed said...

Well, so far, until someone comes across something longer, I guess "Life is a Flame" holds the record for longest song-poem. It may have been about a second or two longer if somebody didn't cut off the soundtrack reel when they made the record. Dang, the lyrics sound like something that would've fit New Image (that Tin Pan group with the "too late for Ronstadt, too early for Benatar" female lead singer) to a tee!

Sammy Reed said...

I just found out that two song-poems I have - one on a Hollywood Sessions album and one on a Columbine EP - have background music that use the same tune as the track Halmark used in "Life is a Flame"! 2 different recordings, from the mid-late 80's, with the same background "melody", if you wanna call it that!
I'll play both those songs on the next episode of my show, which should be tomorrow, 6/28 (Click the link on my name), as well as put a link to this blog and your main one on the playlist to the episode, so people can notice the similarities themselves.
Keep up the great work!

Sammy Reed said...

I put those 2 songs on YouTube. They are:
"You Hurt Me" by Michelle Wood (
and "He's Right for Me" by Elaine Patree (