The band prophecy

In the mid-20th century, Austin Wiggin’s mother predicted that her son would have daughters, and those daughters would form a famous band. He did, and they did, in the most surprising way possible.

Yellow drum kit
Fayjo from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Those of you who have been reading this website for a while will know that I’m not a superstitious person. Prophecies, while great in fiction, do not tend to come true unless they

  1. are vague enough that they can be connected to something retrospectively, or
  2. create the conditions necessary to fulfil themselves.

Some time in the mid-20th century, a palm reader made a prophecy. Her infant son would grow up to have several daughters. And those daughters would form a band. And that band would become famous.

The boy in question was Austin Wiggin Jr. He grew up and had four daughters (plus two sons). When three of his daughters were old enough, he bought them instruments and got them to play. By all accounts, he was a hard taskmaster: he pulled them out of school and had them practice in the basement. He did not seek out professional or even amateur help; Dorothy (“Dot”), Betty, Helen, and later the fourth daughter Rachel were left to figure it out for themselves.

The result was music unlike anything heard before or since. Melody and vocals are in complete sync, but almost entirely without harmonisation. There are drums, but it often seems like they’re playing a completely different piece of music with no reference to the others. At first listen, it sounds like a kind of naive unmusical chaos. But then, maybe, you begin to appreciate it as “outsider art.”

(I’ll be honest, many people don’t get to that appreciation stage. This group is absolutely an acquired taste.)

The band was called The Shaggs (after the hairstyle, I assume). They performed every Saturday night at the Fremont Town Hall in New Hampshire for several years, and even recorded an album in 1969: Philosophy of the World. Only a hundred copies of the original release survive. A thousand records were pressed, but most of them were stolen (possibly by the record company).

The Shaggs would have dropped into obscurity, but those hundred albums began to circulate and a buzz began to build. The rock band NRBQ, radio host Dr. Demento, and Frank Zappa were early advocates; the album got a write-up in Rolling Stone and other music publications. Kurt Cobain described Philosophy of the World as his fifth favourite album of all time. Despite, or perhaps because of, the album’s idiosyncrasies, the Shaggs were a hit.

The Shaggs stopped playing in 1975 after the death of their father. Philosophy of the World was reissued in 1980, followed in 1982 by another album of additional material called Shaggs’ Own Thing. The Shaggs performed again in 1999 and 2017, and it looks like their fame will continue to endure.

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