When Cole Porter's erudite gangsters advise every young man to "Brush up your Shakespeare...and the women you will wow!" it's, of course, really funny. I mean really: hit men quoting Julius Caesar to some molls at a cocktail party? But like every good joke this one too had more than a little truth, especially for the New York social set Porter and his contemporaries counted on to be in their audiences. In the golden age of the American Songbook it was more or less the case that "The girls today in society go for classical poetry."
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides.
One must know Homer, and believe me, Beau
Sophocles, also Sappho-ho.
Unless you know Shelley and Keats and Pope
Dainty Debbies will call you a dope.
Of course, Cole Porter represented the essence of American letters, matched only by Lorenz Hart in his easy comfort with highly literate wit. But in truth, in those days "being cultured" was something generally aspired to and the purveyors of popular song of every ilk--from the clickety-clack of Tin Pan Alley to the sophisticated word play of Broadway to the necessarily blander fare of Hollywood--could rely on their audiences knowing a whole lot of literature, history and just a lot about everything. And so they could and did write what one might call "culture-laden" songs. Usually pretty funny songs that achieve their effect by turning culture on its ear. But that just proves the point: it's hard to get your audience to laugh when you make fun of Cleopatra if they have no idea who Cleopatra was; and as commercial songwriters, Porter, Hart and all the rest weren't about to lay out a song that their audiences weren't going to get!
For this afternoon's concert Ian Whitcomb offers up a great collection of these "cultured pearls" from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood that take as their subject classics from every childhood textbook. From Shakespearean characters like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, to literary staples like Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, Huckleberry Finn, Jack and The Beanstalk, Rip Van Winkle and Little Red Riding Hood, to all kinds of historic figures (King Solomon, Samson & Delilah, Cleopatra, Christopher Columbus and Queen Elizabeth...it should be a humorous--and highly educational--afternoon!