This week's #artsongfix features The Senator’s Stump Speech by Steven Mark Kohn, which we presented at our Americana concerts during my first season with Fourth Coast.
The song debates the pros and cons of whiskey in a mock serious atmosphere that quickly turns comic. It’s a piece that includes lots of fun acting moments and exists somewhere at the intersection of art song, cabaret, opera and musical theater—‘Between the Lines’ you might say!
Kohn is working with a fabulous text attributed to Noah ‘Soggy’ Sweat, a Mississippi legislator and lawyer. Sweat makes decisive arguments on both sides of the whiskey issue, which the composer depicts in delightful musical contrasts.
The opening is set freely as a recitative while the senator’s feelings on the matter are still ambiguous. As soon as he launches into whiskey as ‘the devil’s brew’ the music becomes a menacing march, with muddy low notes in the piano and lots of crunchy chromatic clusters. It builds like a fiery preacher’s sermon to a climactic proclamation of ‘I am against it’, only to give way to a light-hearted waltz in praise of whiskey’s virtues. You can practically hear the sleigh bells ringing as the senator suggests that whiskey means ‘Christmassy cheer’.
One of my favorite lines in the song concerns whiskey’s ability to help forget ‘life’s great tragedies’; here the composer briefly throws us back into the ominous musical mood of the first part of the speech, a clever bit of self-reference which suggests that the joys of whiskey can help us to forget the very ills that it creates.
The song culminates in a triumphant fanfare of ambivalence, a template for politicians of any era who wish to equivocate unequivocally.
This performance was recorded at Newberry Library in January of 2018 and features pianist Mark Bilyeu as well as the rest of my Fourth Coast colleagues portraying the concerned citizens of Mississippi. It was a true delight to perform this piece, and I hope it finds its way onto future Fourth Coast concerts. This is my stand, I will not be swayed from it!
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