From the New York Times online
The Untamed Sounds
of 'Outside Music'
By JOE HAGAN
Last month, I heard David Bowie's 1969 glam-rock classic "Space Oddity" as if for the first time. I'd heard the song on the radio before, of course; however, coming as it did, not from Mr. Bowie but from a choir of elementary school kids in a remote farm community in northern Canada, this was something new.
Orchestrated in the late 1970's by a hippie music teacher named Hans Fenger, the scratchy recording sounded like a document of a clandestine event, as if Mr. Bowie's song had been co-opted for a cult ceremony. The instrumentation included electric guitar and the gamelan-like chimes invented for children by the composer Carl Orff. The lyric of the song's wayward astronaut, "For here/ Am I sitting in my tin can/ Far above the moon," never resonated so genuinely.
Indeed, the album from which the song comes, "Innocence and Despair" (Basta Audio-Visuals 3091102), by the Langley Schools Music Project, exists outside just about everyone's cultural radar. Mysterious and haunting in its hermetic vision, the album, which will be released in the fall, also includes renditions of Wings' "Band on the Run" and the Eagles' "Desperado" (the latter sung by a 9-year-old girl). It is a discovery recently classified as "outsider music" by Irwin Chusid, the music archivist and disc jockey on WFMU in Jersey City.
Unlike outsider art, a label for much that is also called folk art, outsider music isn't necessarily related to folk music. It includes Jack Mudurian, a garbled-voiced 72-year- old who was recorded at his retirement home singing 129 Broadway standards in their entirety, a cappella and nonstop, in a single 44-minute take.
But outsider music, as a catchall for odds and ends that are naïve to the idea of "good" music and its techniques, serves a purpose similar to that of its visual cousin. In a time when music fans are long past lamenting an uninspired music industry, the uncalculated sounds of outsiders are perhaps the last outpost for those jaded listeners, who yearn for a sonic Shangri-La thought to have perished long ago.
Outsider music has mainly been the frontier of record collectors and inquisitive rock stars like Frank Zappa, who is credited with championing the work of an awkward three-sister garage band from the early 1970's called the Shaggs. Part of the appeal lies in the group's story: an obsessed father in a small New Hampshire town forces his daughters to take up rock instruments and emulate the Beatles, despite an obvious lack of talent. The tale was chronicled in The New Yorker last year, and the rights to a movie version have been acquired by Artisan Studios. Bonnie Raitt, quoted on the 1988 reissue of the Shagg's album, "Philosophy of the World" — a jarringly odd record of nonrhythmic, atonal songs about values and parental love — described them as "castaways on their own musical island."
The Shaggs are among 26 outsiders included in a book and accompanying CD written and produced by Mr. Chusid, entitled "Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music." The CD (Which? Records WHI2367) also showcases a gay country singer named Peter Grudzien who yodels about gays in the military; an African-American school teacher named B. J. Snowden who sings a tone-deaf and earnest anthem called "In Canada" ("In Canada, they treat you like a queen/ In Canada, they never will be mean"); and a Swedish Elvis impersonator named Eilert Pilarm whose hapless slurring of "Jailhouse Rock" so distorts the original, it boggles the mind with its originality.
In addition, it features Daniel Johnston, a touchstone of the genre, singing "Walking the Cow," an exquisite organ melody with a soulful lyric about the healing effects of walking a cow. A heavyset 40- year-old with a childlike voice and a fragile philosophical muse — owing partly to a continuing struggle with mental illness — Mr. Johnston is considered something of a pop luminary by indie rock cognoscenti. His disarmingly honest performance at Tonic in Manhattan last month was received with silent awe by a typically aloof downtown crowd.
Erik Lindgren, the founder of Arf! Arf! Records, which released Mr. Mudurian's record, "Downloading the Repertoire" (AA- 057), said that the test of outsider music was simple: does it have the power to elicit a response like "What were they thinking?" from slack-jawed listeners?
Interestingly, many critics had a similar reaction when they assessed the recently unearthed "Anthology of American Folk Music," a collection of raw 1920's and 30's regional music compiled in the 1950's by an archivist named Harry Smith. As the author Geoffrey O'Brien wrote in 1998 in The New York Review of Books, reviewing that collection and measuring its sounds against the squeaky-clean folk revival of the 1950's: "What folk were these? The mood was not necessarily either collective or warm; more often it conveyed isolation, fear, even madness." Performers like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who bleated "I wish I was a mole in the ground" while plucking a monotonous banjo line, exhibited what Mr. O'Brien called an "almost freakish individuality." Wistfully, he concluded: "Go back as far as possible and you find already only an echo of some unknowable music, wilder and richer."
Like Mr. O'Brien, those of us searching for a thread of that rich, unknowable music often lament the loss of some idyllic and un- self-conscious world. Whether it ever existed as we conceive it is debatable. But with our well-documented musical canon and codified entertainment industry, it's hard to imagine discovering anything akin to Lunsford in the present day.
Over the years, critical listening has been a constant exercise in finding a new, supposedly authentic sound, typically from those viewed as outsiders. In the mid-80's, progressive pop stars glommed on to non-Western, indigenous sounds. You could almost hear them thinking, "Surely the purity of these people has not yet been ruined by television." Then came alternative rock and its nobler strain, indie rock, with its willfully amateur aesthetic and cheap recording techniques reminiscent of, well, the Shaggs. And recently one sees the fetishizing of mid- period Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, when he was himself something of an outsider suffering bouts of mental illness.
Enter outsider music, made by those who appear to have slipped between the cracks of glossy modernity, taking with them that desperately yearned-for authenticity. They seem to confirm the existence of something like the long-lost regional, the agrarian and, ultimately, the utopian. At least for the listener. After all, the performers themselves are often isolated by psychosis, senility or an unusual naïvete that rarely serves them in workaday life. Certainly none of them sells records in any significant quantity. For that reason, it's a delicate effort for outsider enthusiasts to avoid the taint of exploitation with some of these artists. Consider Wesley Willis, a schizophrenic who rants about McDonald's and World Federation Wrestling over karaoke-style music. Is this a folk art gem or just awful music?
Devotees of outsider music like to say that this music is "so bad, it's good." Maybe that's just postmodern relativism come full circle. Maybe it's ironic condescension to people who are less than savvy. But considering the heartless stuff heard on modern radio, outsider music also offers a mysterious and therefore refreshing reprieve from the glare of entertainment culture. Doug Stone, a friend of mine who is making a documentary about Ms. Snowden, recently recalled the first time he heard another outsider, Shooby Taylor, a scat singer who babbles as if he's speaking in tongues over jazz accompaniment. Mr. Stone offered this: "It was like a drug. I couldn't stop laughing. I thought it was genius. Does that make it inauthentic? I'm responding to it; he's teaching me something. I'm laughing out of joy. He's not an idiot; he's just really weird!"
It's that arresting weirdness that suggests the rare but abiding presence of mystery, a music not only wilder and richer but very much alive.