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Cole Porter

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Each of the great American songwriters had their own voice through their lyrics. And Cole Porter is no exception. Like Irving Berlin, he supplied the lyrics to his tunes an enviable talent. Of all the great lyricists, it was Porter who expressed his difficult emotions in his songs.

He wrote of the upper classes that, despite all their wealth, were sometimes depressed. Think of “Miss Otis Regrets” wherein Porter adds a rueful humor with the proper language of the lyric contrasted with the depth of despair. After all, she’s lynched by a mob while still averring “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” (Take a listen to Elisabeth Welch delivering it.)

The same note is reflected in Red, Hot and Blue’s “Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor.”  At El Morocco and the Stork clubs people are living it up. But she’s downhearted and depressed in her regal eagle’s nest. These women can be very, very droll and proper while still being deeply unhappy. For the “Laziest Gal in Town” she can’t be bothered to make love. She lets us know that it’s not that she wouldn’t couldn’t and it’s not that she shouldn’t, and not that she couldn’t. She’s just the laziest gal in town.

Not everything was as deeply regretful as those songs. Porter could also be silly, almost to a fault. Think of Du Barry Was a Lady’s, “Well, Did You Evah!” (a tune later used in High Society) or Anything Goes’ advice song, “Be Like the Bluebird.”

And his list songs are unparalleled. Take “Anything Goes” where “Grandmama whose age is eighty in night clubs is getting matey with gigolos. “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” (heard in the 1928 musical Paris and later covered by multitudes, including Eartha Kitt) proves its points by examples. “Dragonflies in the reeds do it” as do “Sentimental centipedes,” “refined ladybugs, “ katydids, as well as bugs and, moths in your rugs, bees do it, as well as educated fleas, chimpanzees in the zoo, courageous kangaroos. Well, the message is they all do it. And in the song Porter defines “doing it” as falling in love though Porter himself might have been thinking of something more carnal. And that’s part of the joy of Porter. He can put a laugh or glossy lyric over something definitely bordering on the risqué. Sometimes even crossing the border!

But, Porter’s ballads could be serious and deeply emotional. Even when presenting a humorous front behind the clever rhymes is a deep sadness. “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” from Seven Lively Arts, is one of the saddest songs in the Tin Pan Alley tradition (an example could be Lena Horne’s rendition). The singer is happy when with her love but when the lover is gone she wonders why a little. It’s as if she cannot accept complete happiness; happy being in love and equally happy being alone wishing she could fully accept that love.

Even “Love for Sale,” which was first heard in The New Yorkers in 1930 and in which a prostitute stands under a lamppost (it was a white woman in the original staging but that was too much for audiences so she was replaced by a black lady of the evening). It seems with Porter whether you were “The Top” or hanging around a street corner looking for some unemotional, unfeeling intimacy, it was hard to be happy.

In Porter’s last show, the television musical Aladdin, there’s a song that encapsulates Porter’s feelings. For in the song the Emperor, the richest man, the most famous man, the man who has everything and knows everyone surmises, “Wouldn’t it be fun not to be famous? Wouldn’t it be fun not to be rich? Wouldn’t it be pleasant to be a simple peasant, and spend a happy day digging a ditch?” And that’s the theme that keeps winding through Porter’s long career. Living the high life when deeply unhappy. Porter opens a window to his psyche more deeply than any other lyricist. The giddy highs and the lowest lows.

 


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