President's Day is Monday. It's not that much of a holiday; banks and the post office are closed but who else gets the day off? I have to work; you do too, I'm guessing? In observance of the day, I'll do a couple posts about songs honoring a few of those guys, and this is the first of them. Anyway, we start with Jimmy Carter. Now, no one is going to say that the country was at its high point during the Carter administration. However, Carter certainly committed himself to actual public service in his time away from the Oval Office. And one might argue that Jimmy Carter is the only modern president of the U.S. who was far less of a pawn of corporate interests than any, going back to Roosevelt.
It's hard to imagine any world where this could be a campaign song for a President of anything, let alone President. Carter was so relentlessly earnest, so clearly a believer in the power of good work — of course his campaign picked the above song. To find the single best tune about our greatest failed president, we must look outside of the regular campaign cycle or music industry.
Like most people, I first heard "Jimmy Carter Says Yes" on the compilation LP Beat of the Traps: MSR Madness vol. 1. Compiled and produced by NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, released by Byron Coley's Carnage in the 1980s, with cover art by Dan Clowes, this is definitely a compilation to pick up if you find one. MSR was the name of the company that people would send their lyrics in to have a record made. Commonly called "American song poems," the best known example today is "A Blind Man's Penis," written by John Trubee. "Jimmy Carter Says Yes," which simply asks "can a government be honest?" (a question no one would even think of asking today), was written by Waskey Elwood Walls Jr. and performed by Gene Marshall. The clip above is from the documentary Off the Charts: The Song Poem Story.
Ardolino himself wrote in the liner notes about the context, how these records got made in the first place: The ads in the back of magazines would say "Send us your poems or song lyrics and we'll get them recorded. Big money could be yours!," or some such come-on. What it turns out to be is that you pay them to put music to your words, then they send you a couple of copies of it on their label. And that's all they do. There are many of these companies, but the king of them all would have to be the MSR label of Hollywood, California — now, sadly, defunct. Sometimes the song would be pressed on a 45, sometimes on an album collection, maybe with a picture of the house composer to help convince the customer that they're legit.
Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...