This Veterans Day, nationally syndicated radio host and song historian Michael Lasser, singer Cindy Miller and pianist and singer Alan Jones will bring “The Songs of World War I” to the Emma Kelly Theater, courtesy of Statesboro’s American Legion Post 90 and co-sponsors.
Like previous Veterans Day observances, it will be free to the public. But this performance, at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, will be unlike any the Legion post has hosted in more than 15 years of annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances. This will be a mostly musical program, highlighting a specific period of history, by professional performers who have recently appeared in venues from New York to San Antonio.
They performed the same concert Oct. 20 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. They are scheduled to bring it to the National Air and Space Museum, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in June. The night before they appear here, Lasser, Jones and Miller will share “Send the Word, Send the Word, Over There: The Songs of World War I” at the Morris Museum of Southern Art in Augusta.
“One of the things we get to see with these songs is the way the attitudes in the country change over a period of several years,” Lasser said from his home in Rochester, New York. “I try to show that as I tell some stories, give a little history.”
About a year ago, Lasser, Miller and Jones started putting this show on the road for the centennial of the United States’ April 1917 entry into what was originally known as the Great War. They hope to keep doing the concert, interspersed with shows on different topics, through 2018, which brings the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.
Lasser, who has a master’s degree in English and previously taught 11th- and 12th-graders, neither plays an instrument nor sings during concerts. But he has achieved acclaim as a historian of lyrics by researching songs, singers and songwriters and telling their stories.
For 37 years, he has hosted a weekly public radio show, putting American popular songs, mostly standards from first half of the 20th century, in context via WXXI-FM 91.5 in Rochester. Syndicated to other stations since 1989, his show, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” won a Peabody Award in 1994. It currently airs on some stations as far from Rochester as San Francisco and Spokane.
“I don’t know how many and I don’t know where, I just keep doing it,” he said in a phone call Friday.
It was a follow-up call. In the original interview, the apparently modest Lasser hadn’t mentioned the radio program, but talked a little about Jones and Miller and more about the songs they will perform.
Live performances developed as an extension of his radio show not long after it started. He worked with other singers and accompanists in the past, but his friends Jones and Miller have been his on-stage companions for 15 years.
All three live in the same area of upstate New York. Miller is a professional singer and musical comedy performer who does impressions of famous entertainers. Jones is a retired educator who has for years performed in a cabaret act with another musical partner.
“They’re very adaptable. … I think they’re very good at understanding what songs say and then finding a way to express that that’s in the spirit of the song,” Lasser said.
Three sample songs
Here they will perform about 15 songs from the years of World War I and immediately after. It is an apt time for putting popular music in social context, since as Lasser points out, the songs had more narrative content than most hit songs do now, and America’s attitude about the war changed from year to year.
“When the First World War started, we were very much an isolationist country,” Lasser said. “We wanted no part of it.”
War had broken out in Europe in 1914, and a popular song in America in 1915 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier.”
But the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania, with many Americans onboard, by a German submarine that May, and other events changed attitudes. By 1917, the United States was ready to enter the war, as reflected in “Over There,” the most famous American song to come out of World War I.
“Then after the war, the country had clearly changed, and a lot of these innocent young men had been exposed to things in France that they could not have imagined, on one hand the carnage in the trenches, and on the other hand the very free life in Paris,” Lasser said.
Thus, in 1919, “How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?” was a hit.
Jones and Miller will also perform some love songs from the period,
“They’re always the songs that resonate most with people,” Lasser said.
Henderson Library’s role
For this year’s special Veterans Day observance, Georgia Southern University’s Zach S. Henderson Library is listed as a co-sponsor, in addition to the Averitt Center for the Arts, which owns the Emma Kelly Theater.
Lasser also does speaking engagements at museums and libraries, and spoke at Georgia Southern’s library years ago. He, Jones and Miller then performed on campus in 2015 in a Civil War sesquicentennial program the Henderson Library sponsored.
So, Dean of the Library Bede Mitchell, Ed.D., suggested the performers to his friend Dan Foglio, senior vice commander of American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90. The library is helping to pay the performers’ expenses.
“I am looking forward to the program because through songs we can get a visceral impression of how people living at that time were affected emotionally by the war and its upheavals,” Mitchell said in an email. “That is the power of art: it can speak to us both emotionally and intellectually at a very deep level. “
Business sponsors, especially Joiner-Anderson Funeral Home, also help Post 90 put on the annual observances. This year’s will retain some traditional elements, such as the posting of the flags by the Knights of Columbus, the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer and the singing of the National Anthem, said Foglio, who has organized the events 12 consecutive years.
But it is unique in having no featured speaker apart from Lasser’s role in the concert.
“I’ve had some great speakers in the past, but I’m excited over this,” Foglio said.
At 10:30 instead of 11 a.m., it will also begin a half hour earlier than past programs. The doors should be open before 10 a.m., he said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.