The Shaggs’ “Philosophy of the World”, Plus the First Poem I Ever Wrote

Legend has it that, in the late 1960s, the Wiggin sisters were pulled out of school by a dad who was under the influence of a fortune teller (and/or looking to get rich quick). Instruments were shoved into their hands in an attempt to mold them into a Walton-style family band called the Shaggs. They appear in every “outsider music” compilation, and one of my few crowdfunding contributions ever is to a dude named Andrew Thoreen who is covering their entire debut album, Philosophy of the World, with preserved idiosyncrasy but enhanced musicianship.

One thing I love about oddball DIY music, the Shaggs being a prime example, is that it’s unconventional people noise-making in the only way they know how. Maybe a lack of technical ability forces feats of innovation. Maybe disengagement from popular culture safeguards against the mimicry of prevalent sounds. Whatever the case, it usually sounds like little else, which is riveting.

All this ties back to my fascination with identifying authenticity and naïve camp. Whether the Shaggs were that, or pop prodigies without the skill to conventionally execute their ideas, or reticent teenagers taking the piss, is a topic of contention; the truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle. (Note: I was going originally to use the term “outsider music” unquestioningly throughout this entire entry before I ran across the following article in Pitchfork, which – legitimately, I think – challenges my entire understanding of “outsider music”. Quinn Moreland proposes that to truly qualify as such requires, in essence, the bird singing because he has to, and with a certain absence of self-awareness, which perhaps cannot be said of the Shaggs, given that they were under duress:

“Calling them outsiders negates the trauma that is deeply rooted within their music. Austin emphasized over and over how ‘pure’ the Shaggs were, how they were ‘unaffected by outside influences.’ But their purity is that of claustrophobia. Outsider artists are expected to possess a degree of unconsciousness that acts as a path into the profound psyche. But the Wiggin sisters were self-conscious teenagers. Their peers tossed soda cans at them. Even though Dot’s lyrics clearly come from a significant place within (her adolescent anxieties) the difference is that of writing a daily journal to share with a classroom of peers versus writing a diary entry before bed.”

Even accounting for that, the Shaggs do exemplify another quality that regularly excites me when I consume unpolished music: the way simple statements often exhibit low-key brilliance. After pointing out that Daniel Johnston is consistently read as childlike and innocent, Alfo Media then states, “[He] wrote strange, direct, intimate songs that connected with so many people. […] The lyrics [to “Life In Vain”] are a total punch in the gut. This is a prime example of how effective straightforward lyrics can be.”

I don't know where is up or down
And there ain't any love left around
Everybody wearin' a frown
Waitin' for Santa to come to town

You're giving it up so plain, you're living your lives in vain
And where are you going to?
You've gotta really try, try so hard to get by
And where are you going to?

-Daniel Johnston, "Life In Vain"


As for the Shaggs, take these excerpts. Simple and childlike, maybe, but I have no doubt the gals knew what was up.

Oh, the rich people want what the poor people's got
And the poor people want what the rich people's got
And the skinny people want what the fat people's got
And the fat people want what the skinny people's got

You can never please anybody in this world

It doesn't matter what you do
It doesn't matter what you say
There will always be
One who wants things the opposite way
It doesn't matter where you go
It doesn't matter who you see
There will always be
Someone who disagrees
We do our best
We try to please
But we're like the rest
We are never at ease

-The Shaggs, "Philosophy of the World"


He's a sad boy
He's a bad boy
He never gives me any joy
Tell me what should I do?

He's a two face
He's a disgrace
He never wins a race
Tell me what should I do?

-The Shaggs, "What Should I Do?"

Sometimes we need only look at our own elementary-school output to see where, in a primitive way, we already had it all figured out, and everything we learned and experienced afterward was just worldly obfuscation, or variations on a single theme.

On that note, here is the first poem I ever wrote, with present-day commentary inserted.

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