Bearded Ladies shake up music, time for ‘Civil War Cabaret’ at PIFA

As the monthlong Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts gets under way, one of the first performances to hit the ground running is a cross-dressing “Civil War Cabaret.”

In a dizzy mashup of time periods and music, the cabaret envisions the last 150 years as a contiguous stream of popular song.

“The war never ended,” says Dixie, a 9-foot Southern belle. “I still feel angry.”

Dixie, portrayed by Bearded Ladies artistic director John Jarboe, was walking the streets of Center City wearing a wide-brimmed sunhat and a full hoop skirt covering circus stilts.

The ringlets from Dixie’s wig brushed against Jarboe’s five o’clock shadow as the character towered over a four-piece walking band called Bobby Lee and the Surrenders.

Get it? Bobby (Robert) Lee, and the Surrenders.

“That rascal Neil Young wrote a song called ‘Southern Man,’ and then a wonderful man wrote ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in response,” said Jarboe in the Southern drawl of his character. “There’s still a war of music happening nowadays about the Civil War. So I just want to keep on fighting.”

The cabaret presents a Blue vs. Gray tug-of-war that persists to this day, as the Bearded Ladies would have it. “John Brown’s Body” morphs seamlessly into the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

“There’s an old minstrel song, ‘Old Dan Tucker.’ The music was used for ‘Get Off the Track,’ which was an abolitionist song,” said Heath Allen, who arranged the music for the cabaret and plays accordion. “So they’re taking this minstrel song and repurposing the melody for an abolitionist message. Lyrically, it has a metaphor of a train, this unstoppable train for love and freedom, which mashes perfectly with “Love Train,” by the O’Jays.”

Allen notes that mash-up appropriation was common even during the Civil War, when Union soldiers would rewrite lyrics to songs the Southern soldiers were singing, and vice-versa.

Since the summer of 2011, the Bearded Ladies have been performing a series of whimsical cabarets in the lobby of the Wilma Theater, with finely crafted multi-part harmonies and rough cardboard sets.

For PIFA, they are performing in the basement theater of the Kimmel Center until April 6.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.