Leona Anderson - "Habanera from Carmen" (Music to Suffer By)
When my neighbors annoy me, I fight back. There are certain records I keep around primarily for that purpose. (The banjo improv of Uncle Woody Sullender is my go-to.) This remarkably clean remaster of Leona Anderson’s 1958 “incredibly strange” classic Music to Suffer By would be an obvious candidate for that shelf. That is, if it weren’t so complex and entertaining.
Leona Anderson wanted desperately to be famous. The kid sister of Western film auteur “Broncho” Billy Anderson, our heroine grew up determined to make it as a singer, preferably in the insulated, insanely competitive world of opera. Her family splurged on the most highly qualified vocal coaches on both sides of the Atlantic. But it was for naught. Each one sent Leona home in exasperation, often insulting her on her way out. One condemnation stuck with her: “the worst voice I’ve ever heard.”
By her 75th year, Anderson was ready to embrace this distinction — nay, to profit from it. She got it. Her voice was, by any standard, awful. But being good at something has never been the only way to do it professionally. Having failed at being good, she very consciously set about becoming famous as the worst. In that way, she was hardly an “outsider,” or an heiress to such clueless wannabes as Florence Foster Jenkins and the Cherry Sisters. Yet, unlike Mrs. Miller and William Hung down the line, she was too bright to simply exploit the novelty of her badness.
Anderson spent enough of her life studying opera to make a deft mockery of it. Her flat notes are carefully timed punchlines. She slaughters “Carmen” and “I Love Paris” with the precision of a satirist. Her originals (“Yo Ho the Crow,” “Rats In My Room,” “Limburger Lover”) are too bizarre to be serious and too multi-faceted and deadpan to be jokey. The result is neither “outsider music” nor comedy, and it’s as fascinating as it is terrible. Maybe not even “terrible.” Maybe just artfully “off.” Way off. Off like nothing else before or since.
I’d file this next to The Carl Stalling Project. Anderson’s singing is stylized absurdity, but, compositionally, this is about as intricate, adventurous and broadly referential as music gets. Fans of old cartoons will have a blast.