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October 20, 2010

Revival of J.M. Barrie plays shines light again on songs of World War I

One of the many pleasures of the current Rep Stage double bill of J.M Bartie plays -- you ought to catch it -- is hearing snippets of World War I songs. They're used as background before each play and put to particularly effective service during "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," a poignant tale of two lives brought together under the most unlikely and mutually rewarding of circumstances.

Both world wars produced an awful lot of popular music, including patriotic tunes, comic ditties and the sweetest of ballads. Many songs associated with WW I may sound very dated and terribly sentimental to a lot of folks now, but there's some wonderful stuff there, in melody and lyrics. Hearing some of them at Rep Stage got me thinking about that whole genre and a piece of sheet music I bought at an antique store years ago called

"Dear Old Pal of Mine."

I had to buy this one because it said that it was sung by John McCormack, one of my favorite singers. At that point, I had not heard the tenor's recording of this particular item, but I figured the song must be at least decent (he did occasionally bother, I know, with inferior material). It turned out to be great, almost on par with the ultimate sad song of WW I, "My Buddy."

I enjoy digging the sheet music out and playing it at the piano every now and then -- with fabulous rubato, of course -- but the best way to experience it, I know, is through McCormack's golden voice, which conjures up the era so magically. I hope you find it as affecting as I do:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Rep Stage


Thanks for remembering the great John McCormack. It is interesting to compare this 1928 performance of Dear Old Pal of Mine with his 1918 version. There is of course a dramatic improvement in the recording technology in the later version, it having been recorded three years after the microphone replaced the metal horn for amplification. The listener can hear the nuance in the voice in the 1928 recording, not only because of the improved sound, but because by this time McCormack the singer was a more dramatic and emotional artist. It is a quieter, more mellow performance. The words mean more now, the emotion is more realistic. The voice is not what it had been -- in the line "sweetheart may God bless you," the instrument is a bit strained on the high note on the word "may" whereas in the early version McCormack hit it splendidly. But while McCormack was now in a vocal decline he made up for it by improvements in his artistry, his individuality, and his musicality. And, he still had that shimmering, ethereal, high mezza voce, used to good effect at the very end of each performance. Thanks again for helping to keep the memory of this great talent alive. The 1918 version is also available on Youtube; just search McCormack Dear Old Pal 1918.

Thanks so much for your comments. I agree completely about the beauty of that earlier recording. And, of course, it has the extra value of dating from wartime. But I couldn't resist the simplicity of voice and piano from '28. Anyway, I like nothing more than to remind people of this man's incredible vocal artistry. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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