The Shaggs have at this point taken their place in the pantheon of folk art, as exemplified by Philosophy of the World, their privately pressed 1969 LP, a notorious work, sometimes ridiculed and held up as an example of absurd ineptitude, more often celebrated as a naïve musical narrative created outside of the norm of influences and cultural reference. I return to the album often; it reminds me of listening to shape-note singing, or US Highball by Harry Partch, or Carl Orff's work for the musical training of children -- or if you are sick of me getting all high-brow -- of Ricky Nelson and Dino, Desi & Billy, professed favorites of the band. The debate goes on as to what kind of parent Austin Wiggin was to coach/force his daughters to rehearse music daily, whether it was right or wrong to home-school them, whether the girls were happy to perform (for years) at a weekly Fremont, New Hampshire teen dance. The whole family apparently took part in those shows: the older son played the maracas; the other son, Robert, played the tambourine and did a drum solo during intermission; Annie sold tickets and ran the refreshment stand.
We weren't there, and all I can do is hope that this wonderful music sometimes made the Wiggin sisters happy. The Shaggs album is by far the most mysterious of the American private press albums by children or adolescents that we've had the fortune to hear. Other examples such as The Mystic Zephyrs 4, The Dandelions or Jr. and His Soulettes are wonderous examples of the private language of childhood innocence that rendered, say, the Jackson Five superstars, and somewhere in the homemade nature of those records, alongside The Shaggs sits a notion of how we all crave a visceral nod to those moments of free-flowing creativity that is the privilege of the child, and a long-gone lugubrious echo for adults.
We've listened to a lot of grade school and high-school records put-ting together this book. Albums issued by schools as yearly fund-raisers, often with sour, out-of-tune renditions of classical standards, sometimes interspliced with a Jesus Christ Superstar medley or a version of "Theme From Shaft." The joy of the human spirit is rampant in these recordings, as is a spurious side-note of melancholy that we generate as we are listening in. The relationship to the music of The Shaggs sits right there: How we listen to The Shaggs sets in motion what The Shaggs masterful album is, and what they were.
Philosophy of the World is an idiosyncratic American master-piece, worth a thousand-million and a hundred internet memes. Remember: The game has changed with YouTube and the internet: The effort, distance, cumbersome labor and financial commitment that were all roadblocks necessary to circumnavigate in order to have your musical vision distributed on vinyl has all been rendered null and void. We are all daily consumers of the privately expressed residue of everyday life: "Chocolate Rain," "Numa-Numa," "It's Friday," maybe even "Wally-World." Austin Wiggin had those mass-culture hopes for his daughters. An anecdote describes his perplexity at the success of the Beatles, he felt his daughters were deserving of such fame.
I often gravitate to a YouTube clip that I find profoundly and embarrassingly moving: Chris Brown's "Forever" used as the processional soundtrack at the wedding of Jill and Kevin. They've rehearsed and staged a hot-cha-cha choreographed routine to amuse their friends and families. A slice of mainstream pop has been infused with the collective emotional good will of a happy familiar crowd on a big day. Jill and Kevin and their loved ones inform Chris Brown's R&B swill with the sublime, and this process once executed, can never be reversed. If I hear "Forever" in a deli, my eyes water up with the drool of Pavlovian sentiment, and that is a beautiful thing.
The clip has now reached, oh, 20 million viewings on YouTube. The experience of watching this clip is intimately connected to my relationship to The Shaggs' masterpiece, reminding me in a most serious manner that, to quote Michael Daley, "music needs to serve people and not the other way around." In that spirit, one can quote from Austin Wiggin's liner notes from the album, as our Shaggs experience is solitary, is holy and needs to be taken as seriously or flippantly as all of our everyday rub-ups against the sublime:
The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different, it is theirs alone. They believe in it, live it... Of all contemporary acts in the world today, perhaps only the Shaggs do what others would like to do, and that is perform only what they believe in, what they feel, not what others think the Shaggs should feel. The Shaggs love you... They will not change their music or style to meet the whims of a frustrated world. You should appreciate this because you know they are pure what more can you ask? They are sisters and members of a large family where mutual respect and love for each other is at an unbelievable high... in an atmosphere which has encouraged them to develop their music unaffected by outside influences. They are happy people and love what they are doing. They do it because they love it.
Enjoy the Experience: Homemade Records 1958 - 1992 is edited by Johan Kugelberg, Michael P. Daley & Paul Major. Direct pre-orders of the book arrive in a deluxe slipcase and are accompanied by a foldout poster and a clear vinyl Century Records promotional 7-inch on "How To Press Your Own Record" - not available in stores, but available directly from the website: http://store.sinecurebooks.com/