Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Shaggs

Today I have a story on the off-Broadway musical based on The Shaggs. My tone might be slightly acerbic, but in no uncertain terms, I have --if not loved-- then admired the music that the Wiggin sisters made under duress.

Fifteen years ago, I was in a Half-Price Books in Houston, Texas, trying to find the bathroom. Instead, I happened upon a backroom filled with merchandise that wasn't on the floor just yet. Staring back at me was a copy of The Shaggs' lone 1969 album, Philosophy of the World. No, it was not the original, but the 1980 Red Rooster reissue. Still, it was $3 well-spent.

I only wish that in the piece today I could have included composer Gunnar Madsen's explanation on how the Shaggs put their music together:
Dot wrote the songs and she wrote the melody to go with the lyrics and didn’t really know much about 4/4 time and tried to fit the lyrics into regular phrasing. What she ended up creating were mixed meters: 3/8, then a 2/2 bar, and then a 5/8 and then a 4/4. Meanwhile, it sounded like her sister Helen got drum lessons because she knows how to do basic 4/4 beats like “The Twist” but she can’t follow the shifting meters that Dot does. So in each song, you’ll hear Helen try to stay with her sisters but then just go into 4/4. So she’s going off in one direction while Dot and Betty are singing their melodies in mixed meters.   
I was also puzzled by the recording of “Philosophy of the World.” The vocals are one bar behind the guitar but they’re in unison. And I realized they must have overdubbed the vocals because it’s one beat off. The sound pulls your mind in two different directions!