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The Wonderful World of Outsider Music

By Matthew Revert

Outsider music has always been a source of curious joy for those of us who explore life’s more unusual recesses. It is the domain of the pariah, the misunderstood and, quite often, the hopelessly deluded. It is the junction where reason ends and accidental innovation begins. This isn’t the music of an obscure experimental musician making noises in their basement, this is music that wants to belong – music that instinctively believes it belongs. Even if the music in the below list elicits nothing more than mocking laughter from those who listen, the artists responsible for making it all believed in their work very strongly. Outsider music doesn’t strive to exist outside of an existing system – it just does.

The artists highlighted in the below list represent only a small fraction of what’s on offer. In the interest of space, I’ve only included 5. I hope to highlight more outsider music in upcoming articles.

The Shaggs

The Shaggs have become synonymous with ineptitude. Their shambolic attempts to re-create popular music really need to be heard in order to be believed. These three sisters, Betty, Helen and Rachel Wiggin, each combined their lack of talent in order to produce something strangely amazing. Under the borderline tyrannical guidance of their father, Austin Jnr, The Shaggs were formed and their sole album, “Philosophy of the World” was recorded and promptly forgotten. In 1980, ‘Philosophy of the World’ was re-issued and since then, their popularity has continued to rise. There has never been another band like The Shaggs.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Wikipedia sums things up perfectly:

“Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American soprano who became famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability.”

The beauty of Florence Foster Jenkins is she was in possession of the money required to propagate her lack of talent. The barriers that should have stopped her pursuing such an ill-informed desire could be purchased until they were no longer a problem. During performances, you can hear musicians speeding up and slowing down to match her fluctuating tempo. She drew crowds whenever she played, mostly because she was a humorous curiosity. Given Jenkins’ delusions of grandeur, it’s reasonable to surmise she viewed this popularity as evidence of her ability. Without further adieu:

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy

One great thing about outsider music is its tendency to inadvertently trigger the early phases of full-fledged musical styles. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (Norm Carl Odam) is said to be responsible for ultimately inventing Phsycobilly. Best known for his 1968 song, “Paralyzed”, LSC’s music was typified by howls, screams and random vocal exorcisms. The backing music contained only the rudiments of structure and reason. It all adds up to a very unique and strangely exhilarating experience. Odam is still doing his thing and going strong.

BJ Snowden

BJ Snowden is a real pleasure of mine, and although maybe not as well-known as other outsider musicians on this list, I had to include her. She is best known for a strangely naïve and stirring song called “In Canada”, where she extols the virtues of… yep… you guessed it…Canada. This song appeared on the 1996 album, “Life in theUSAandCanada”. Snowden’s appeal lies in her complete disregard of trend. Listening to her music, it’s hard to know who it’s designed for. The songs are very simple and, for want of a better word, corny. Yet her dedication to the schmaltz somehow transcends into a realm of musical bliss. The good news is that Snowden works as a music teacher and is passing on her unique musical talents to entire generations of children.

Sondra Prill

There’s something about public access television that breeds a unique form of gonzo brilliance. It’s a gumbo of wannabes, used-to-bes and never-will-bes let loose onto the television screens of those with the gumption to watch. If you were inTampa,Floridain the late eighties, there is chance you happened upon the truly wonderful, “My Show” starring Sondra Prill. “My Show” was essentially Prill screaming and wailing over heavily synthesized backing tracks without restraint or self-consciousness of any kind. It all adds to up to a beautiful fiasco. What makes Prill different from any other inebriated karaoke reject is the undeniable presence she has. Judge for yourself:

What are some of your favourite outsider musicians?

By Matthew Revert
Author of A Million Versions of Right
clockworkfather.wordpress.com

20 responses

  1. NICK

    Wow thank you brother for posting that. I’m pretty sure Sondra Pill just “made my day” with that Pump up the Jam, that was also highlighted on those video’s you posted.

    May 27, 2011 at 12:19 pm

  2. NICK

    Oops meant Prill.

    May 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

  3. carltonmellick

    BJ Snowden is amazing. I didn’t know she had videos. I’m going to have to see if there’s more on youtube.

    Sandra Prill is certainly something.

    May 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    • Hello Carl,
      I am B.J Snowden. Thank you so much for your kind words.
      I do have lots of videos. Please check my Youtube page http://www.youtube.com/thebjsnowden
      My CD was featured on The Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show.

      B.J

      July 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm

  4. The low quality strobe thing going on in Sandra’s video is setting off my seizures.

    Her Pump Up the Jam video is worth a look as well.

    May 27, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  5. lisathatcher

    I’ll have to explore this – I certainly don’t have a favourite ‘outsider artist’ at this point.
    The Sondra Prill was incredible, but my money goes with B.J. Snowden. Amazing. I guess before Kurt loved him, Daniel Johnston fell into this category as well.

    Hate to be SUCH a chick – but I do want Sondra Prills outfit. Not to mention her moves.

    May 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm

  6. cameronpierc

    I love that Songs in the Key of Z comp.

    Daniel Johnston is one of my favorites. Jandek is also interesting, although I can’t listen to much of him in a single sitting.

    May 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    • And Cameron… thanks for the reminder. You made me pull out the Songs in the Key of Z comps again, which led me to the book of the same name, which led me to purchase it!

      May 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    @Nick: Yeah… Sondra’s something special alright. She oozes magnetism.

    @Carlton: Snowden rocked my world when I first discovered her. It was via a segment the Disinformation tv series (http://www.disinfo.com/) did on outsider music. I was instantly hooked.

    @Steve: I think the very low grade quality of Prill’s perfomances definitely adds to overall charm (and horror).

    @Lisa: I guess Daniel Johnston is the most well-known outsider musician and yeah, a large part of that was thanks to Cobain. He was responsible for bring several outsider musicians into the public eye. I believe he was a big advocate of The Shaggs.

    @Cameron: I adore Jandek. I finally had the opportunity to see him live last year, which allowed me to tick off something I never thought I’d get a chance to. He’s a great example of someone who really did his own thing, completely divorced from what was happening in the world at large.

    May 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm

  8. Great article. Actually introduced me to a few I haven’t heard of before. I think the queen of outsider music would have to be Lucia Pamela. Her one album “Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela” is inspired lunacy.

    Of a similar ilk as Johnston is Wesley Willis. His work is even more basic and raw than Johnston’s.

    If you think the musicians backing Florence Foster Jenkins had problems, track down “Sing It Again Sam” by Sam Sacks. It was a vanity recording and the poor musicians backing him have no choice but to soldier on bravely, as Sacks just takes a deep breath and spits out the words to whatever song he’s murdering in one fell swoop- no tune, no melody, just pure gusto. You can download all the tracks from his album here:
    http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2007/11/the-inimitable-.html

    Kali Bahlu’s “Kali Bahlu Takes the Forest Children on a Cosmic Journey of Remembrance” is a masterpiece of addleheaded inanity.

    There’s all the wonderful arcana of song/poem music as well, such as Gloria Balsam singing an ode to her poor cat Fluffy.

    Gary Schneider’s notable version of Green Tambourine

    Those are just a few I can think of off the top of my head. A lot of strange and bizarre music, outsider and otherwise, mixed in with other more normal music can be heard on one of the most unique internet radio stations to be found: NeverEndingWonder Radio.
    http://www.NeverEndingWonder.com
    Garrett Cook, Jess Gulbranson & The Slow Poisoner have all been heard therein.
    Disclaimer: I run this station.

    May 27, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    • Hey, Lee. I missed this great reply when I checked last night. Sorry about that. Yes! Lucia Palmer is an absolute joy! Oddly I didn’t even think of her when compiling this list. I’m going to go listen to her album now.

      I’m going to check out that Sam Sacks track asap. It sounds brilliant and right up my alley. Thank you so much for the link.

      I’m going to bookmark never ending wonder and make my way through it.

      Thanks again for the great reply.

      May 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm

  9. Edmund Colell

    Fantastic list! I was a little surprised to not see Wesley Willis here, but everything else made up for it.

    May 28, 2011 at 1:18 am

  10. Thanks, Edmund. My space was limited, so I decided upon highlighting artists that aren’t as well know, hence no Willis or Johnston. I have great affection for them both though.

    May 28, 2011 at 3:40 am

  11. These videos were the aural comparison to a jettison of espresso. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy blew me away – I could almost smell the bourbon and paint thinner through my speakers. I could also see myself getting pretty heavy into Florence Foster Jenkins. I’m pretty sure The Shrills were simply flipping Ambien and coffee.
    And BJ Snowden…MESMERIZED by her mannerisms. A true performer.

    Sondra Prill unfortunately did nothing for me, as I’ve seen her likes on numerous occasions in college.

    Thank you Revert, I needed this!

    May 28, 2011 at 10:06 am

    • As always, Wook… you’re a beautiful bastard. I had a feeling this list would be up your alley. You should track down the albums. A great comp of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy was released a couple of years ago by Em Records http://www.emrecords.net/records/00076.html

      May 28, 2011 at 8:52 pm

  12. I like Cromagnon a lot, Matt, although I might have already told you about them. Their one album came out in the 69. This song is the highlight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPiO_G-DEHs

    The rest of the “songs” are more outsider-y, although they may have invented black metal with this one.

    June 18, 2011 at 12:48 am

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    October 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    • John, Heidi, & family we alrdaey miss you this past two weeks. I need milk, music, butter, and just your good company. I have ran into so many people asking about you and when you will be open and where you are. They will find you and we all need to help them do so. Heidi, let’s play Bingo soon. Hope the girls are settled in school along with Zack. I’ll will try to get by to see you this Sat. if possible. The concert looks fun have to check the calendar. I can work the next Saturday if you need me, Denise

      March 22, 2014 at 4:01 pm

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