TRAVERSE CITY — You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy “Songs of a Catholic Childhood,” a musical concert at the Williamsburg Theater Saturday night.
You just have to let the lyrics and music of Chicago singer/songwriters Jamie O’Reilly and Michael Smith take you back to ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s America — a time of large Catholic families, the era of John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Catholic American president before the folk Mass reforms of Vatican II.
Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy played movie priests. A virtual convent of Hollywood actresses donned habits and wimples to play nuns on the silver screen. Millions of Catholic kids attended parochial schools, among them Smith in the 1940s and O’Reilly in the 1960s. Catholics ate fish on Friday and the church decided what movies parishioners should see and not see.
“Songs of a Catholic Childhood” is not a song-and-dance show, nor does it satirize the Catholic Church, said O’Reilly.
“People are often concerned there might be a political edge to it,” she said. “But it’s a non-political, first-person account of how a child interpreted the world of that era. It contrasts Michael’s and my experiences growing up Catholic.”
A generation separates Smith and O’Reilly. The oldest of six children, Smith grew up in the working class Irish/Italian neighborhoods of New Jersey after World War II. Baby boomer O’Reilly was the fourth of 14 kids in an artistic family that lived in a small Illinois town after Vatican II.
Their repertoire of more than 20 songs, sung as solos or duets, also includes Latin favorites and Catholic religious songs made famous by movies.
Their own songs — hilarious, poignant and serious — are written from the perspective of a child trying to make sense of the rituals, rosaries, confessions, holidays and the death of a father, as well as popular movies and songs of the time.