This weekend, recovering from a pretty amazingly intense root canal (I learned my lesson - ask for the gas. Always. No matter what the dentist says. Get knocked out) my girlfriend set me up with this amazing list of totally bizarre material on Wikipedia (true stuff, as far as Wikipedia goes, but bizarre nonetheless). After reading plenty of things about some micronations, and some disappearing colonies, and raining animals (including space jelly), I came upon an article on Florence Foster Jenkins. I wouldn't call her the first "outsider" musician, but she is certainly one of the first whose performances were recorded and still exist today.
Outsider is a musical genre of sorts used by a lot of people who are very much into studying music. It generally refers to music made by people with no real training whatsoever. They just feel to compelled to perform and record music despite not knowing too much about their particular instrument, and often also not having much talent either. Many people enjoy it ironically, as it very often sounds like an aural nightmare and is very easy to make fun of. Others enjoy it for what it is- primitive music that brings joy to the performer while simultaneously being completely untainted by the status quo sensibilities of its time. In other words - it is enjoyed because it couldn't sound less like whatever is top of the charts... any charts... ever. Some outsider artists you may have heard of - Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, the Shaggs, and Jandek.
I had listened to a few of these groups (I actually really like Daniel Johnston, some of his stuff is difficult to get into but a lot of it is startlingly accessible with some intense lyrical awesomosity). I still wasn't prepared for the great Florence Foster Jenkins. She had, apparently, always wanted to be a singer despite the protestations of her husband and parents. When her father died, though, she was able to pursue her dream of being a famous singer in New York with the inheritance. She took a few lessons and then started giving recitals around 1912.
Ms. Jenkins started to become fairly popular in some circles in New York and frequently turned down offers to perform. She liked to give small recitals to society friends as well as a yearly recital at a famous hotel/restaurant in town. Her final performance was in 1944 at Carnegie Hall. She died a month later.
Oh and another thing - she couldn't sing to save her life. Not a note. She attempted difficult operetta selections from Mozart and warbled through with no set pitch, rhythm, tempo, or approximation of proper pronunciation. Her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (I'm not kidding... best name ever), often had to change what he was doing several times mid-song to attempt the Sisyphean task of making her sound on-key. She also created/engineered costumes to wear for her recitals. Wings, tinsel, viking/angel/pirate queen motifs - this is what she was going for.
OK, so this probably sounds like I am making fun. To an extent that is probably true. After all, it is kind of funny to imagine what these recitals must have been like. But I also think I have full-on respect for her particular brand of delusion. She played out for over thirty years, to often confused and amused audiences, and still died thinking she was the great soprano of her generation. By all accounts she died happy and content, confident in her talent.
My favorite quote from her was directed at her haters. "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." I think I have brand new respect for some of the people who are more than willing to grab the mic at some of our outings with Rock Band.
Finally a sample - click here.