When vocalist Joan Morris and pianist Bill Bolcom take the stage in the Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, April 21, they won't be performing excerpts from Bolcom's award-winning setting of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Although the recent recording of the monumental symphonic song cycle with Leonard Slatkin leading the University Symphony Orchestra and the UMS Choral Union won big at this year's Grammys, this time Bolcom and Morris will be appearing in KCH's Cabaret Song series. As a composer, Bolcom fuses disparate musical elements into a strongly individual style. But as a longtime collaborator with his wife, Bolcom is cokeeper of the true flame of twentieth-century popular song.
Despite the program's ironic title, popular songs are no more foolish than life and love are foolish. If they stick around long enough, pop songs transcend genre to become part of the musical collective consciousness. Take the song from which Bolcom and Morris took the program's title: nobody can remember hearing it for the first time, but everybody knows the opening line — "A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces." Or take their next song, "Taking a Chance on Love": nobody remembers the verse, but everybody remembers the chorus. Likewise, few recall who premiered the song "Moanin' Low," but every woman who's ever sung the blues knows how it goes. And, of course, nobody knows who wrote any of them.
Bolcom and Morris know. They know it was Eric Maschwitz — writing as Holt Marvel — who penned the immortal lyrics to "These Foolish Things" in 1935, the same year this son of Lithuanian immigrants was admitted to the Order of the British Empire by George V. And they know that Billie Holiday's 1936 recording with pianist Ted Heath established the song in the States. They know it was Russian immigrant Vladimir Dukelsky — writing as Vernon Duke — who composed the instantly memorable music to "Taking a Chance on Love" in 1940 for the unforgettable Ethel Waters starring in the all-black musical comedy Cabin in the Sky. They know that although Lena Horne and Billie Holiday each covered Howard Dietz and Ralph Rainger's "Moanin' Low" in the late 1930s, it was the 1929 recording by Sophia Kalish, singing as Jazz Age hot mama Sophie Tucker, that made the song. They know that for these and the other songs on the program there are lyricists, composers, performers, and a whole history of recordings to whom they are responsible, and that, cabaret songs or not, foolish things or not, life and love or not, this is serious business.
[Review published April 2006]