When Jamie Meltzer picked up the CD I Died Today, a collection of song-poems by an obscure musician named Rodd Keith, he had a feeling he was onto something before he’d even removed the shrink-wrap. Then a film student at San Francisco State, Meltzer had vaguely heard of the song-poem industry–a 50-year-old racket in which aspiring but clueless songwriters pay to have their lyrics set to music–but had never given it much thought. Once he listened to the Keith CD, however, he thought the premise would make a great subject for a short film. Six years later the project has mushroomed into Off the Charts, an hour-long exploration of one of the more obscure corners of American pop culture.

“We’ll write, record, and promote your song,” reads a typical ad in the back of the National Enquirer or Amazing Stories. “This could be your BIG CHANCE!” It’s a classic huckster ploy that plays on the uniquely American thirst for rags-to-riches success. A starstruck writer submits lyrics for appraisal and then, usually buttered up by praise, sends in a fee (typically $75 to $400) and suggests a suitable genre. The piece is recorded by studio musicians in a marathon session in which it’s not unusual for 15 tunes to be cut in a single hour, in one-take, sight-read performances. A limited number of 45s or CDs are pressed and sent to the lyricist. Despite the promise of impending fame, the company does nothing to promote the “release.”

According to Meltzer more than 200,000 such records have been produced since the industry found its legs in the middle of the last century. But it wasn’t until NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, who first stumbled upon some of the records in a surplus hardware store in 1971, released a compilation of his favorite song-poems in 1990 that any effort was made to recognize this jumble of marginalia as a genre unto itself. While the overwhelming majority of song-poems are tedious imitations of banal love songs or pop formulae, musicians like Keith–who employed an analog sampling keyboard called a Chamberlin to craft elaborate arrangements and is widely considered the greatest of the genre’s musicians–went beyond mass production aesthetics. With lyrics that range from twisted (an ode to masturbation called “All You Need Is a Fertile Mind”) to laughably earnest (the adulatory “Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes'”), the best song-poems are unforgettably odd. Ardolino and music historian Phil Milstein, who runs the American Song-Poem Music Archives (www.aspma.com), have collaborated on four compilations, and last year Milstein collected the best of them as The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush (Bar/None).

Meltzer wanted to dig beneath the surface absurdity of it all. “It’s not just a funny thing. There’s a tender, sincere side to it that I didn’t anticipate as much,” he says. “I didn’t really expect that the musicians would end up being really interesting in and of themselves, but they were dreamers, too. That was kind of a parallel to the song-poets. They’re the same kind of people, all trying to fulfill their dreams and not having huge success at it.”

For the film Meltzer interviewed a number of contemporary song-poets, capturing the quirky personalities of writers like Caglar Juan Singletary, whose “Non-Violent Tae Kwon Do Troopers” features the hooky chorus “Thank Jehovah for kung fu bicycles and Priscilla Presley.” An unemployed Iowan named Gary Forney is the de facto star of the movie. Meltzer gets him calling a DJ in Denmark from a pay phone–because his home phone’s been cut off–to see how his single is doing; he struggles to stay upbeat when it becomes clear that the DJ has no idea who he is. Meltzer also follows Forney and his guitar-playing son Josh to a county fair, where they perform for a few dozen folks visibly confounded by their ragtag renditions of songs like “Chicken Insurrection” and “Three-Headed Boy.” The documentary closes with Forney calling his wife from his hotel room, putting his best spin on the debacle.

“That stands for a lot of what goes on in the lower rungs of the music biz,” says singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, a rabid song-poem enthusiast. “You go through all of these motions and you realize you’re sort of pathetic in the instant, but that’s what the game requires a lot of the time.”

“I realized, the particulars aside, that’s really the same process any musician goes through, and I could relate to it strongly,” says Rodd Keith’s son, jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin (see Critic’s Choice in Section Three). Keith considered his song-poem work a form of prostitution and jumped or fell to his death from a freeway overpass at age 37. Eskelin’s the one who put together the collection of his father’s work that Meltzer happened upon in 1998.

In late January Shout! Factory, a company started by Rhino Records cofounder Richard Foos, released Off the Charts on DVD. (In February 2003 PBS broadcast the film as part of its Independent Lens series, but local affiliate WTTW chose not to air it.) The film has its Chicago premiere at 7:30 on Saturday, April 17, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, with additional showtimes Wednesday, April 21, at 8 and Sunday, April 25, at 5:30. Tickets are $9; call 312-846-2800. Meltzer, Forney, and contemporary song-poem musician Art Kaufman (aka David Fox) will attend the Saturday screening and answer questions. Before the film, song-poem fans Kelly Hogan, Scott Ligon, and Anna Fermin will play a few of their favorites. At 10 that night they’ll be joined by other local musicians, including Sally Timms, Jon Langford, and Janet Bean, at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia; Forney and Fox will also perform. At 8 on Sunday, April 18, the film screens at the club, followed by a set by Robbie Fulks and his band, who’ll perform some classic song-poems as well as compose and perform music on the spot to lyrics submitted by audience members. Call 773-227-4433.