Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO Pops

An early July 4

By - Jun 10th, 2010 06:15 pm
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George M. Cohan

At the turn of the 20th century, America felt the oats growing in those amber waves of grain. The Great White Fleet of warships circumnavigated the globe to tell the world that America had arrived. American commerce, bolstered by coast-to-coast railways and fed by an endless source of immigrant labor, burgeoned economically. Americans by and large believed that the 20th century would be the American century, and by and large they were right.

In New York, a generation of Broadway producers, songwriters and music publishers created a new specifically American music and show business to reflect all this. The energy and wit of it reflected burgeoning American pride and optimism generally and much of it was specifically patriotic in content. Some of those songs persist as our unofficial national hymns.

George M. Cohan, the man who made Broadway Broadway, was the key figure of this movement. Irving Berlin, a generation behind Cohan and Cohan’s protege, sealed the deal. Of course they are key sources for Marvin Hamlisch’s Stars & Stripes Pops program,  which runs Friday through Sunday (June 11-13) and which concludes the MSO’s 2009-2010 season.

Cohan’s brash and jaunty style — the derby tilted down toward one eye was part of his image — consciously set out to free the American musical stage from European operetta trappings. The Irishman-New Yorker grew up touring and performing with his family’s vaudeville act; he knew the entire country well. He filled his lyrics with American slang and brought the song-and-dance styles of minstrelsy to the legitimate stage. At his peak, he owned six theaters on Broadway, and they all ran his shows all the time. His signature number: Yankee Doodle Dandy.

For Cohan (1878-1942), patriotism was not just a duty or a business. He felt it to his marrow. Typically, he cast himself as a wise-guy American quipster among hypocritical — and often British — stuffed shirts. This persona resonated with the public; America, collectively saw itself as the honest, energetic impulse that would shake up the crusty, European old order.

Those shows were comedies, but Cohan could be more serious with his patriotism, too. On the night of April 16, 1917, after president Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war that made America a combatant in World War I, Cohan locked himself in his study and came out the next morning with Over There.

Cohan’s popularity waned in the 1920s, because he never quite grasped the importance and influence of the jazz styles coming out of New Orleans. His protege, Berlin, did. Berlin prospered in the 20s by adding black jazz elements to pop tunes.

This 2002 U.S. postal service stamp commemorates Irving Berlin. The inscription: “God Bless America.”

Berlin, like Cohan, practiced a certain kind of implicit patriotism by defining, in his songs, a very likable Average American Joe. Think of White Christmas, which of course is not explicitly patriotic. But it came out in 1942, in the darkest days of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American boys were fighting thousands of miles from home. What were they fighting for? In part, Christmases “just like the ones we used to know.”

Like Cohan (a native-born American of Irish descent), Berlin (an immigrant Russian Jew who arrived in New York with his family at age 5) felt his American patriotism deeply and often expressed it specifically. Berlin (1888-1989) joined the army in May of 1919, just a couple of months after becoming an American citizen. He promptly created an all-GI musical, Yip, Yip Yahank, which played at first in the camp and then on Broadway. When World War II came along, he made and performed in another GI musical, This Is the Army. Berlin was a tireless USO performer throughout the war.

The crown of his patriotism, of course, is God Bless America, which became the country’s second national anthem when Kate Smith started singing it daily on her radio show, in 1938.

Here is what Berlin’s daughter, Mary Ellin, said about it:

“This was a very strange Irving Berlin song because I knew my father as this jazzy, sophisticated or earthy vernacular writer of songs like Alecsander’s Ragtime Band and Cheek to Cheek. And then… I came to understand that it wasn’t ‘God bless America, land that we love.’ It’s ‘God bless America, land that I love.’ It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody who sings that song makes as they sing it. And I understand that that song was his thank-you to the country that had taken him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”

Sources: The American Songbook, by Ken Bloom, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, New York, 2005; America’s Songs, by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser, Rutledge Publishing, New York and London, 2006; and the Cohan biography at Musicals 101.

More Program Info

In addition to medleys of patriotic songs by Berlin and Cohan and Irving Berlin’s This Is a Great Country, Hamlisch will lead the MSO Pops in some of his own music and works by Stephen Foster, Meredith Wilson, Woody Guthrie (a different sort of patriotism, there) and others.

In addition to the orchestra, tenor Mark McVey, the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, the Above the Town band and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus Quartet will be featured. The quartet comprises tenor Joseph Schlicht, lead tenor John W. Letterman, baritone James Sampson and bass Timothy W. Schmidt. Above the Town, a Milwaukee-based Bluegrass ensemble, comprises guitarist/vocalist Bill Brenckle, banjoists/vocalists Jon Peik and Greg Cahill, fiddler/vocalist Jerry Loughney and bassist Brian Baker.

Tickets, Times, Location

Concerts are set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11-13, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $25-$93; call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206, the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605, or visit the MSO website.

Irving Berlin aboard the U.S.S. Arkansas in 1944. Wikipedia Commons photo.

Categories: Classical

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