Brilliant Songs No. 3: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”

Sometimes, a song strikes us as so lovely in melody or phrasing that the singer could be reciting the New York City phone book, as the old saying goes, and we’d be over the moon and humming the thing all day long. Other times, the writing is so poetic or haunting that the melody need not enter our bloodstream, as it were, for us to be moved to tears.

The very best songs, of course, cover both those bases, tickling our melodic bones and stimulating our cravings for language that tells a meaningful tale, suggests a profound truth, or just plain sounds fun and clever and worth repeating to friends.

So it is with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” a rollicking, witty, and musically complex song that Porter’s publishers banned to the “B” side as a throwaway to the anticipated hit of “Indian Love Call” for the bandleader Artie Shaw when it was first pressed into a record in 1938. This was three years after the song was written and debuted in the Broadway musical, “Jubilee,” unrecorded and unacclaimed.

As it was, “Beguine” became a monster hit for Shaw as an instrumental, so listeners had to await the later versions—now totaling well over 100—for a huge variety of artists to give the song the particular lyrical spin that most called to them.

My favorite story of the song’s origins (there were several) shows Porter as the true word lover he was. His biographer Charles Schwartz cites a letter that Porter wrote to a fan:

“I was living in Paris at the time and somebody suggested that I go to see the Black Martiniquois, many of whom lived in Paris, do their native dance called The Beguine. This I did quickly and I was very much taken by the rhythm of the dance, the rhythm was practically that of the already popular rumba but much faster. The moment I saw it I thought of BEGIN THE BEGUINE as a good title for a song and put it away in a notebook, adding a memorandum as to its rhythm and tempo….About ten years later [on an island to the west of New Guinea, in what is now Indonesia], a native dance was stated for us, the melody of the first four bars of which was to become my song.”

What I love about that is Porter hearing the “The Beguine,” thinking right away to lead it off with “Begin,” and then filing the little song phrase away for a decade until he got a second inspiration from the Indonesian dance.

Cole Porter

This is exactly how it works with writers. Phrases, ideas, themes, entire book ideas float around barely beyond the edge of their consciousness until the ideas are snagged, or intrude themselves into a dream or the writers’ first thought upon awakening, or when washing the dishes or shampooing their hair.

Here it comes, out of the void, and one does well to note it on a scrap of paper, a bar napkin, or these days, on the Notes app of a cell phone for future retrieval.

One can almost hear Porter’s wheels churning: “’The Beguine.’ Wait, wait: beguine…the big beguine…the big bad beguine…the bigshot beguine…the beagle does the beguine…

“BEGIN THE BEGUINE!”

And then comes all the rest of it, hooked to a compulsively hummable tune, which Porter wrote with a highly unconventional 108-measure length rather than the standard 32. The song thus taxes the phrasing abilities of most singers, making it all the more beguiling to listeners like me who have no idea we’re listening to an unconventional technical structure but do appreciate that what we’re hearing is just “different.” (And compelling, and a whole buncha fun…)

So, let’s have a listen and a look, shall we, with the additional treat of it being via an altogether remarkable performance by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, tearing it up as few have done before them or since. Then we’ll get to a little lyrics discussion/appreciation before wrapping things up with a few more You Tube versions that will exemplify the amazing range and impact that various interpretations of the same song can give to us.
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Well! Was that just about the coolest three and a half minutes you’ve ever spent in your life, or what?

It’s hard to underestimate the sheer style, talent and pizzazz of the Astaire-Powell duo, which could and may yet be fodder for a whole other blog post, but we are gathered here today to talk about the Cole Porter song to which they do such profound justice, so let’s get back to Porter’s genius again by reading his lyrics.

Begin the Beguine

When they begin the beguine 
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back a night of tropical splendor,
It brings back a memory ever green.

I’m with you once more under the stars,
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.

To live it again is past all endeavor,
Except when that tune clutches my heart,
And there we are, swearing to love forever,
And promising never, never to part.

What moments divine, what rapture serene,
Till clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted,
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted,
I know but too well what they mean;

So don’t let them begin the beguine 
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember;
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember 
When they begin the beguine.

Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play 
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine

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So: we have a love story here, ardor and romance spilling over with all the power that memory can bring to bear.

And in typical Porteresque fashion, it is wonderfully articulate, a language lover’s dream of word pictures, with rhymes galore and images brought richly to life:

…tender/splendor
…playing/swaying (with an orchestra down by the shore”)
…What moments divine, what rapture serene/Till clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted

And then this killer line:

To live it again is past all endeavor,

Yeah, I know, he needed a rhyme for “forever,” but still, who uses “endeavor” in a song lyric and can get away with it?

Cole Porter, that’s who.

Especially when he follows it up with the universally understood sentiments that pour directly from his passionate, expressive heart:

Except when that tune clutches my heart,
And there we are, swearing to love forever,
And promising never, never to part.

The Porter era, which included the likes of Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin, featured uncommonly articulate writing, but Porter arguably reigned supreme in the pure sophistication of his lyrics.

He seemed to take great delight in the sheer beauty of words that were evocative and cleverly paired, exhibiting a playful spirit that spilled throughout his oeuvre, not least in titles such as “Let’s Do It,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Anything Goes” (yes, he had a serious naughty streak), “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “It’s De-lovely.”

We are not likely to see the likes of him again, and if I may borrow from another set of his lyrics in addressing his memory, I’ll close with this before linking to a few more You Tube videos below, just so you can, at your very own leisure, enjoy some additional Cole Porter-ish fun:

You’re the top! You’re the Colosseum,
You’re the top! You’re the Louvre Museum,
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss,
You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet,
You’re Mickey Mouse.
You’re the Nile, You’re the Tow’r of Pisa,
You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa.
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, Baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

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Here’s the original hit version from Artie Shaw and his big band:

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Johnny Mathis’s elegant phrasing gives full reign to the beauty of Porter’s lyrics:

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And finally, a love-it-or-hate version that takes an already complex song and puts a wholly new spin on it by shifting to a minor key, courtesy of the contemporary pop-rock-country star Sheryl Crow.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Photo of Porter at his piano by Francis McClaughlin-Gill, a noted fashion photographer of her time.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/53035820@N02/sets/72157625021097383/

7 comments to Brilliant Songs No. 3: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”

  • Michael O'Connor  says:

    Lovely! I always thought that there was some connection to the beguinage, which is a kind of semi-religious informal community of single women who don’t really want to be nuns. there are beguinages in several towns in Belgium – little groups of houses shut off from the town and usually, I think, locked at night.
    I really love what you have put together here – the information, the music, the visuals. Thank you

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You’re very welcome, Michael, thanks for Traversing! Yes, I’d seen references in connection to the song to the “Beguines” as a medieval religious order of women, but it wouldn’t appear Mr. Porter was thinking of them with these lyrics!

      Handy little anecdote I neglected to mention: In Porter’s original version of the song, the second-to-last line was, “And we suddenly know, the sweetness of sin…” Later, presumably to deal with propriety concerns, the last part was changed to “…what heaven we’re in.” Not that sin can’t be perfectly heavenly in a Porteresque world, of course, but it was the 1930s, after all…

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Andrew, as a way past his sell by date journalist channeling Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart or Alan J. Learner this was the best I could do in answer to your lovely essay on great American music of the first half of the 20th Century.

    You’re the blog, you’re the Eiffel Tower
    You’re the chief of some great word power
    You’re the melody from a simple ode by Bach
    With a wit sublime and a sound with rhyme
    You’re Donald Duck

    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      All right, so that may not knock Mr. Porter off his throne as America’s preeminent songwriter, but I appreciate the effort and look forward to hearing it on piano someday, Bruce. You’d better start practicing! :-)

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    My mother’s two favorite swing band songs were Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” and Bunny Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started with You,” both of which I selected to be played at her memorial. If you’re not familiar with Berigan, give him a listen. He does double duty on the tune, playing trumpet and singing, a rare combo on any big band recording. (I think somebody named Louis Armstrong did it, too.) Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started with You” lyrics echo Cole Porter, dated but smart.

    I’ve flown around the world in a plane,
    I’ve settled revolutions in Spain,
    And the North Pole I have chartered,
    Still I can’t get started with you.

    On the golf course I’m under par,
    Metro-Goldwyn has asked me to star,
    I’ve got a house, a showplace,
    Still I can’t get started with you.

    I’ve been consulted by Franklin D.,
    Greta Garbo has had me to tea,
    Still I’m broken hearted,
    ‘Cause I can’t get started with you.

    Unfortunately, Berigan enjoyed his Scotch more than his trumpet and died of cirrhosis at the age of 33.
    My coda will be a comment or two on “Night and Day”, which Fred Astaire first sang on stage and later more famously in the musical Gay Divorcee. It remains my favorite. “Night and Day” breaks away from the standard 32-bar AABA melodic construction and embraces a more complex 42-bar six section ABABCD pattern with the C-section becoming the bridge, creating what I believe to be his most interesting song. Sinatra might agree with me in that he recorded it five times.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well that is pretty great, Robert, just had a load of fun with it, both the performance and those wonderful lyrics rivaling (could just as well have been written by, I think…) Porter himself! Had never heard of Bunny or this song. Astonishing & dismaying to think of cirrhosis taking him at 33—that requires such prodigious drinking that one wonders: Was he drunk all the time and still managed to practice enough to play like that?

      BTW, ran into a Sammy Davis Jr. version which is worth a look/listen if you haven’t come across it. From the Letterman show, purportedly his last TV appearance before he died the following year. Davis’s phrasing is so impeccable, I just love it; talk about a multi-talented guy. And with the ever present cigarette, no less—so sophisticated… (Not!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ls33JN395OE

      Yes, “Night and Day” is a gem indeed, but Porter has so many I’m hard-pressed to pick a fave. Depends on my mood, I think. (Besides B the B, that is…) Thanks for this!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    What is amazing about Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started with You” is that it was recorded on the first take after his band went looking for him in every bar in New York, finally finding him a few miles away from the studio unable to stand. Similarly, one of the great Dixieland trumpeters, Bix Beiderbecke, while the death certificate read lobar pneumonia, passed away at age 28 after 12 years of drinking quarts of hard liquor per day. Real shame.

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