CD Review: Dawn Derow’s “My Ship: Songs from 1941”

January 9, 2022 | By

In her affecting new CD, My Ship: Songs from 1941, versatile vocalist Dawn Derow celebrates the World War II-era entertainers who comforted civilians stateside and soldiers overseas with memorable recordings of America’s soothing, rousing, and escapist popular music.  Recalling such icons as the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington, Derow performs 14 songs, all written in 1941.  But it’s not just the memories it conjures that make Derow’s album so special.  It’s how superbly the arrangements (by her pianist/musical director Ian Herman and the late Barry Levitt) are tailored to Derow’s ability to serve up diverse singing styles and to shift seamlessly among them.  Each track constitutes a riveting journey that takes us to a new place, to a broadened perspective on an old song’s musical elements, history, and expressive potential.   

Dawn Derow (Cover photo: Matt Baker)

Most of the arrangements comprise three differently-styled sections that build in musical excitement and emotional wallop.  In the opener, a ravishing rendition of “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” (Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez, Jimmy Sherman), the three sections paint the torch song’s yearning in different shades.  Derow introduces the sentiment with clear, classy vocals; a horn solo lends a smokey quality; then Derow returns and bellows blues-style—yet smoothly, with an elegance surprisingly devoid of the genre’s usual growliness.  No matter what vocal style she adopts, Derow brings something unexpected.  And it’s that unpredictability which makes her singing, and this entire CD, so interesting.  

In the hands of a lesser performer, the album’s longest and weightiest track might have proved wearisome.  But with the help of Herman’s heartfelt piano passages, Derow makes absorbing drama out of the over-eight-minutes-long pairing of two earnest ballads, “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me)” (Duke Ellington, Lee Gaines) and “I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” (Duke Ellington, Paul Francis Webster).  Instead of imbuing the pleading lyrics with an agonizing quality, she finds a pretty sound with which to convey an insistent passion.  As the track progresses, she builds the emotion gradually, slowly pulling us deeper and deeper into her fervor.  One suspects some of the credit for the nuanced expressivity of this track should go to Jeff Harnar.  A celebrated cabaret singer himself, Harnar directed Derow in the eponymous 2017 show on which this album is based. 

Not a singer who finds one groove and sits in it throughout a song, Derow proffers variegated versions of hits that are often associated with singular emotions.  Rather than remaining an angry tirade, Derow’s “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer) slides into a snappy, toe-tapping feel halfway through, before climbing sassily to a wailing finish.  Her “Skylark” (Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer) starts wistfully, grows contemplative, and winds up boldly forthright.  Only in her disarming performance of “Baby Mine” (Frank Churchill, Ned Washington), a lullaby from the Disney animated feature Dumbo, does Derow sustain a single mood throughout, yet one of such suitable sweetness and warmth that to have strayed in any direction would have felt like a betrayal of the song’s intrinsic purpose.

In her bewitching interpretation of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon), Derow establishes a character—a temptress—who steers the song in a sexy direction.  Her version is slower than those we’re used to hearing, less bouncy, and very heavily accented, with her seductive vocals suggesting a steamy storyline.  Yet for “Why Don’t We Do This More Often?” (Allie Wrubel, Charles Newman), instead of spotlighting the lyric’s naughtiness and the tantalizing quality evoked by the long melodic lines, Derow gives it a conversational feel, a casualness, almost an indifference, of the kind that makes one all the more intriguing. And she makes the smart choice in how she tackles “The Saga of Jenny” (Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin), a narrative song from the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark.  The show is about an unfulfilled career woman undergoing psychoanalysis, and its gender politics are painfully dated.  Yet as the song’s wit is still wonderfully entertaining, Derow adopts a smashing Broadway belt, punches out the lyrics, and just lets them tell the story.  However, on the album’s title track, “My Ship” (Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin), also from Lady in the Dark, it’s Derow’s vocal virtuosity that distinguishes her performance.  Despite the romantic ballad’s big interval jumps, Derow creates a rich, syrupy quality, skillfully gliding from one note to the next, with no break in sound or thought, and nary a blurred pitch.  

The CD’s penultimate selection is a calm rendition of “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin) that one thinks would be the closer.  This is an album of music from one calendar year, the end of which could be marked tidily with a Christmas song.  Plus, by now, we must surely have experienced the full gamut of Derow’s vocal abilities.  But no, even this late in the game, she delivers a surprise.  Derow ends her album with that gorgeous, morale-lifting song written to console the Brits during their darkest wartime hours, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” (Walter Kent, Nat Burton)—and she sings it with glorious operatic gusto.  Yes, Derow possesses a spectacular legit soprano, and her performance moved me to tears.  Why?  I don’t really know.  Was it just the musical aesthetics—the caressing melody, and Derow’s soaring voice buttressed by lush string accompaniment?  Or was it the reminder of how grateful the Allies were in December of 1941 when the United States finally entered the war?  Or perhaps it was simply nostalgia, for a time when Americans were the heroes of the world.


Produced by Paul Rolnick for Zoho Music.


Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of "The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances of the 1950s". A choreographer, critic, and historian, she has written for Back Stage, American Theatre, Film Journal International, and numerous other popular publications, encyclopedias, and scholarly journals. An adjunct professor at Columbia University and Rutgers, she is currently researching a book on the influence of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County on America’s musical theatre.

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  1. Scott Bennett says:

    Brava! A beautifully written review.