Music historian discusses 'outsider' tunes

Irwin Chusid speaks about obscure music at Writers House

The Daily Pennsylvanian
October 5, 2007

Music historian Irwin Chusid is an avid fan of The Shaggs, Judson Fountain and William "Shooby" Taylor.

And you thought Ben Kweller was obscure.

Chusid was on campus yesterday night to speak at the Kelly Writers House, an event co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.

As author of Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, Chusid is more than just a fan of the relatively unknown.

He is an expert on "outsider music," which he defines as "sincere artistic expression" and "the sonic counterpart of outsider art."

Though his involvement with outsider music began as a personal collection of the less-than-mainstream, it turned into something greater in 2000 when he discovered a recording of a 1976 school choir singing rock songs.

"Where does a school choir get an arrangement of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity?'" he said. "I was utterly perplexed, and fascinated. I loved it."

As a radio personality for WFMU in New Jersey, Chusid played the recordings for his listeners. Upon receiving requests for more, he decided a coherent CD of this choir needed to be made available.

What he subsequently compiled - The Langley Schools Music Project - went to number one on, serving as inspiration for the movie School of Rock.

Chusid is currently working on a reissue for the late Shooby Taylor's recordings, though the rights have been particularly difficult to acquire - in the quintessential spirit of an outsider musician, Taylor often "scats" over classics by Johnny Cash, Elvis and others.

Despite coining the term "outsider music," Chusid by no means feels entitled to the genre.

"I brought this to the world because I wanted to share it. I don't own it," he said.

Particularly grateful to hear Chusid "share" his knowledge was Erin Gautsche, program coordinator at Kelly Writers House.

"The Writers House has always been interested in the cutting edge, the avant-garde and the underappreciated," she said.

However, not all Chusid's music interests are underappreciated: He loves Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) and admits that, when it comes to music, ultimately, "it's about if you like it."