Throw away all your preconceptions of what music should be... where we're going we don't need rules
The music of Congress-woman Malinda Jackson Parker can easily be dismissed, laughed off, not taken seriously as a piece of art. Coming across like a wacky Nina Simone, her singing is often of dubious quality, the lyrics are often bizarre, and the piano-playing is not quite up to the standards of, well, Nina Simone, but it’s not bad either. So, why are we reviewing this? Well, it’s our first true foray into the unusual world of outsider music. When we reviewed the work of Bahamian polymath Exuma, his idiosyncratic style comes close to outsider art, but it’s just too competent to be deemed true outsider art, with several songs on his album being rather catchy. You might find yourself singing a few songs from Congress-woman Malinda Jackson Parker’s album, but that won’t be because they’re works that draw you in with catchy hooks. No, it will be because they’re just so odd you can’t stop listening.
“Usually, I judge music on how much I like it, rather than how much it means to the person making it. Here, I feel differently. I feel happy that Parker was able to express herself like this.”
Most, if not all, of what is known about Parker can be traced back to Irwin Chusid’s truly fascinating book Songs in the Key of Z, which profiles several musicians who can be termed as outsider artists. Parker is briefly profiled at the end, with much of the information being vague and sourced from Liberian music message boards and forums (the book was first published in 1999). According to Chusid, the album appears to be a vanity pressing recorded in the United Kingdom around 1971, and that Parker was an actual congress-woman during the presidency of William Tubman (indeed, the album is alternately known in Chusid’s book as Tubman Goodtype Songs of Liberia, with this Spotify version being a digital expansion). She was an independently wealthy woman who was something of an eccentric celebrity around Monrovia, beloved for her unusual fashion choices and make up, as well as for always handing out sweets to children. While there is nothing in the way of verification for these biographical facts, it certainly paints a picture that rings true when you listen to the music. Eccentric is putting it kindly. Initially, when I first listened to this, I was just unable to get past the oddity of it all. With songs like Cousin Mosquito #1, where she warns against the dangers of mosquitos all the while repeating the word cousin hundreds of times, to the warbling of Wille Long Yeah Vic, I really struggled with appreciating this album. Usually, I like weird art. I like surrealism and abstractions, I like music that tries new things, but this just seemed inept, rather than good or interesting. I wondered if we should even review this album. But then, something strange happened to me while I listened to it again after having read Chusid’s book. I went through the looking glass.
Outsider music is not like your normal music meant for the consumption of the masses (though it can be the intention of the outsider artist that it be popular). It is, in practice, niche to the extreme, and can put many people off. Indeed, many of the artists profiled in Chusid’s book I found extremely hard to listen to, as I did with Parker initially, but what you come to understand, after having read Chusid’s wonderfully written vignettes on these artists is that this is art on a different level – not a superior or inferior level – simply another way of comprehending music where the personality of the person and their self-expression become paramount. As Chusid himself puts it, the outsiders he profiles “lack self-awareness. They don’t boldly break the rules, because they don’t know there are rules.” It is not simply a lack of commercialism or talent that marks out these musicians as many were commercially minded and many are talented, it’s rather that their music is a pure expression of what they want to make, and they don’t care what people think of them. For me, this was a fascinating way of thinking about music. Usually, I judge music on how much I like it, rather than how much it means to the person making it. Here, I feel differently. I feel happy that Parker was able to express herself like this. She clearly had a ball when recording it. It’s as pure an expression of her personhood as perhaps anything could be. She wanted to make this, and she did, and though it’s jarring at points, it is honest. And, in a bizarre way, she has connected with people, albeit a select crowd ever since, because of that sincerity of expression.
I find there to be little point in going through this album like I would usually, saying what is good and what is bad, what songs I like and which ones I don’t. Sure, Cousin Mosquito #2 is perhaps the funniest because Parker sounds like she’s going to have a hernia yelling the word ‘cousin’ so much, but really, for me, that’s not where the enjoyment is to be found. It’s easy to be cynical and jaded about these things, but when you’re presented with a work of pure earnestness, a work of outsider art that is purely itself, with little consideration for what is deemed good or bad, high or low art, I can’t help but admire it. Do I put it on to relax of an evening? Certainly not. Would I ever put it on shuffle at a house party? Only if I was attending the party of someone I hated. However, it does have its place. After a while you come to like Parker and her idiosyncrasies, and her personality, the personality that made her a beloved figure in Monrovia, really shines through.
Addendum: Before writing this piece, I got in contact with Irwin Chusid to ask him where he found out about Malinda Jackson-Parker, how he found out about her, and if there were any extra titbits that did not make it into the book he would be willing to share with me. I did not hear back before the publication date of this review, and as such posted it as above. However, a few weeks after, I heard from Lou Smith, a colleague of Chusid who was the one to find her LP hidden away in a Brooklyn flea market in the 1990s. He told me that what was in the book was more or less everything they were able to find out, mostly from the aforementioned message boards and occasional remembrances of Liberians who remember her eccentricities. However, he very kindly dug deep into his archives for any extra references to the Congress-woman that had popped up since the publication of the book. Below are a few choice selections:
She recorded much more than appears on this album. Some appears on CD collections like Songs of the African Coast: Café Music of Liberia, but most of it has been lost.
A part 3 to Cousin Mosquito apparently exists, but has not been released.
The Congress-woman title may have been an honorary one bestowed upon her by her friend William Tubman.
Conversely, according to the Dekhontee Artists Theatre Inc., based in Monrovia, she was a passionate legislator in favour of the rights of musicians. She was inducted into their hall of fame in their 2017 40th anniversary celebrations. Also according to this institution, Cousin Mosquito was also her artistic nom de plume, and was a friend of Liberian poet Bai T. Moore.
She never married and passed away in 1974.
She loved peppermint sweets, Jacob's Cream Crackers, and Gordon's Dry Gin.
I hope that satiates any desire you, the reader, may have for extra information about the inimitable Malinda Jackson-Parker. But beware that much of this is uncorroborated, unsubstantiated, and unreliable, dependent on the vagaries, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies of human memory. As Lou Smith wrote to me in one of his emails, we will all have to be prepared to be left with the essential mystery of the Congress-woman.
Quotes in the main review taken from Song in the Key of Z by Irwin Chusid, 1999. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the unique world of outsider music.