The Film

Song-Poem Contest

Song-Poem AdsThe Film

This music has everything in the world going against it. It's completely artificial, it's a scam, it's ... you know, I could probably list 15 different reasons why it shouldn't work. But, for some reason, something comes through all this stuff. And I think that's part of the charm and attractiveness that it has. - Ellery Eskelin, musician and son of song-poem auteur Rodney Keith Eskelin

What's in a Name? Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer on the 
hunt for subjects.

One of the roles I had to take on in this film was private investigator. Finding the song-poem writers was a huge challenge: all I had to go on were their names and the names of their songs. One thing that helped was a lot of song-poem writers have, shall we say, unique names. I submit the following actual, legal names as examples:

Rampersaud Toolsie
- "Rip Off Fear"

Caglar Juan Singletary
- "Non-Violent Tae Kwon do Troopers"

Daspina Theorodon
- "Magic Island"

Chaw Mank
- "I Can't Decide (If It's The Beatles, Elvis Or Rick)"

Melcenia E. Bunk
- "I Couldn't Get Away From Love"

Ramdutt Jorawar
- "Love With No Love"

The list goes on. At one point I feared the film might be populated entirely with people with odd names.

The many aliases of the song-poem singers also presented a few challenges. For instance, song-poem singer Dick Castle went/goes by all of the following: Dick Kent, Sonny Cash, Buddy Raye and Richard House. This presented a problem when I first made contact with Dick - who to ask for. I found myself trying a different name each time I called, wanting to test him and see if any of the names would throw him. None ever did. By the way, his real name is Elmer Plinger.

OFF THE CHARTS: The Song-Poem Story is a fascinating, at times unsettling, documentary that exposes the strange underworld of the song-poem industry. In this little known subculture, "ordinary people" respond to come-on ads on the back pages of magazines, mailing in their heartfelt but often bizarre poems to "music industry" companies that, for a fee, turn those poems into real recordings. OFF THE CHARTS explores a truly unique, never-before-seen slice of Gothic Americana through interviews with several song-poem writers, the jaded producers and musicians who set their words to music, and a few of the growing number of zealous song-poem connoisseurs.

Meet the some of the song-poets and the musicians who set their lyrics to music.

Like a warped fun-house mirror, the song-poem industry has run parallel to the mainstream music business for close to a century; it's estimated that over 200,000 song-poems have been recorded since 1900. The genre's durability can be traced to three American desires - to be in show business, to get rich quick and to share and express the deepest of feelings. Several of the "songwriters" are introduced - from an elderly woman to a young African American man to a small-town Iowan with big-time dreams - each of whom has been in the "business" for a while, churning out odd compositions that cover the waterfront of American obsessions, from Jesus to genitalia, from politics to Elvis. The film also features the producers (often known as "song-sharks") who hold out the tantalizing promise of fame to their eager customers, and the has-been musicians who sit in studios, day after day, year after year, interpreting some of the weirdest lyrics ever written.

As filmmaker Jamie Meltzer says, "The beauty of song-poems is that they are a result of the intersection, or collision, of ordinary people's expressions and the desires of musicians/businesses to make a quick buck, making the music as fast as they can, usually in one take. When those two forces combine, they create strangely compelling songs that are unlike anything you've ever heard."

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