Walt Kelly was one of the geniuses of American pop culture in the 20th century. That legacy, of course, is built on Pogo, his brilliant comic strip that ran from 1949 until his death in 1973. Originally started as a comic book, Pogo flourished as comic strip, as Pogo the Possum and Albert the Alligator soon were surrounded by numerous other residents in the Okefenokee Swamp, which grew richer with each passing year. Kelly is chiefly remembered for being a satirist and a social commentator, a reputation he earned with such storylines as a series of risky, scathing strips attacking Joe McCarthy at the height of the blacklist, along with his trailblazing environmentally conscious story of the late '60s, where Pogo famously commented that "We have met the enemy and he is us." All this is true, but Pogo retained legions of devoted fans for years because Kelly created a robust world with some of the greatest cartoon visuals in history (the detail is flabbergasting), while writing fully rounded, imaginative characters along with exuberantly funny absurdist words -- all things that can be appreciated outside of a political context, which is why the comic strip has aged so well. It's also why it spawned a bunch of memorabilia, including the 1956 LP Songs of the Pogo. Kelly wrote the songs -- often with co-writer Norman Monath, a veteran of the Brill Building -- and the music was arranged by Jimmy Carroll, a colleague of Mitch Miller, who led the orchestra for this collection of strange, delightful music.
Technically, these are not songs from the comic strip -- Kelly's most famous parody, "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie," is absent -- and, musically, it might not seem to jibe with the homespun nature of the drawings, since it's a freewheeling collection of prewar popular musical styles. There's a little bit of folk and blues here, but they merely inform the songs, which really sound like turn of the century tunes designed for singalongs at the family piano or cinematic ballads -- or, in the case of the Kelly-sung "Go-Go Pogo," a rabble-rousing campaign tune out of Tammany Hall. It's music that's out of time, evoking an era earlier than 1956, but one that's highly stylized and absurdly funny. In that sense, it captures the spirit of Pogo -- nowhere more so than in the words, which highlight Walt Kelly's inventive wordplay -- even if it never quite feels like something that would be sung in the swamp. Regardless, it is unique, rather wonderful music, which will certainly thrill any fans of Pogo. And they'll be especially thrilled by Reaction Recordings' loving 2003 reissue of the album, which also includes two singles from 1969 ("No" and "Can't," which are both largely spoken stories from Kelly), two rehearsals, and Kelly's spoken forward to the Pogo Papers. These are transferred from vinyl, since the original tapes have long been lost, and while there are evident pops and crackles, they actually enhance the atmosphere of this music (plus, this LP is so rare, it's churlish to complain that the source material is vinyl). Then, the booklet is filled with great reproductions of Kelly's art (as well as a reproduction of the LP's original artwork), full lyrics, and no less than six essays, including the insightful "Three Little Maids: Walt Kelly and the Nonsense Tradition" by Mark Burstein. Special thanks have to go to Parasol Records producer Geoff Merritt and Ric Menck, the drummer of Velvet Crush, who both produced this reissue and contribute fine liner notes (an introduction and a biography of Norman Monath, respectively). Without their love and dedication, this absolutely exquisite reissue would not exist, and all of us who have cherished Pogo throughout the years are in their debt for bringing this out. It may not be for everybody, but anybody who has ever loved Pogo will find this necessary.