A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
And We Suddenly Know What Heaven We're In
The other day we heard, for the first time, the Glenn Miller Orchestra/Andrews Sisters' version of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." It's a well-known, up-tempo tune that is perhaps most famously covered in Artie Shaw's instrumental version. The Andrews Sisters were renowned for their clear diction and so for the first time, we actually listened to and understood the lyrics of the song. Much to our surprise, it's not an upbeat lyric it all. It's an unapologetic nostalgia-fest. But it was arresting to experience Cole Porter's words for the first time and it reminded us of that startling effect that popular music evokes once in a while. It's something we've been thinking about since Michael Lydon's piece a few weeks ago about songwriting.
Emotional transport is not a regular feature or goal of popular music, which seems generally to be the aural equivalent of snack food. Popular tunes are littered with disposable lyrics. Opera, choral music, and musical theater are the genres that have a better claim to the art of combining words and music to create something transformative for the listener, and we should note that "Begin the Beguine" is actually a crossover as a popular song. It began in musical theater, in the now rarely performed 1935 musical "Jubilee." Still, it got us thinking about what a song needs in order to take you outside the confines of the three-minute window to something more enduring, such as the experience of a brief glimpse into what someone else's life feels like. Here's a brief and very subjective guide, illustrating some of the points that Michael raised and focusing on a few popular songs from a short timespan, back in the day.
We have always been struck by the opening of the Mamas and Papas' hit song from 1967, "Twelve Thirty" (you can listen here):
I used to live in New York City
Everything there was dark and dirty.
Outside my window was a steeple
With a clock that always said 12:30.
The remainder of the song is a pretty good example of a rock song of its era, and the rest of the lyric doesn't live up to the promise of its beginning. But this stanza, sung in beautiful four-part harmony, encapsulates a slice of life in an image, and the success of it is down to one word: steeple. The lyric would be completely forgettable if the metrically equivalent "tower" or worse, "building," appeared in the same slot. But with steeple, we get a distinct and contrastive image that expands to a portrait of a period in the singer's life. The lingering image is of a steeple, suggesting inspiration, in a place that is stuck, dark, and dirty.
Another song, which now has passed into the genre of oldies so overplayed that you nearly cringe when you hear them, is "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," written by Mel Tillis in 1969 and turned into a hit by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. It requires a full hearing before you get the story, and that contributes a little to the mystery in the first stanza. When you get the picture, the opening words turn out to be a very efficient thumbnail of a whole boatload of anguish:
You've painted up your lips
And rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?
The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down.
Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town.
In these four lines we get a character portrait of Ruby, a veiled reference to the singer's disability, and a premonition of his dread at the thing he knows he can't prevent. The song loses its power after a few hearings and becomes mere background noise after a hundred or so, but it was a chart-topper in its day and has been widely covered and translated into other languages. Tillis makes a few words do lots of work, especially (we think) tinted and painted up, which speak volumes about the perfectly named Ruby.
A couple years later (1971), Joni Mitchell released her influential album "Blue." Here's a stanza from "The Last Time I Saw Richard":
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright.
These four lines sum up the plummeting trajectory of a whole life. The unlikely rhyme of figure skater and percolator map out for the listener the road not taken by Richard, and the consequences of it, from the point of view of the singer who is trying hard not to let go of youthful idealism and romance. It's an unusually reflective view on a subject that is a staple of songs in every genre: the love that is no more.
And that brings us back to the lyrics of "Begin the Beguine." Here it's not a case of a single word, or even a stanza that creates the effect. In fact, if you read the words without knowing the song, you may find them maudlin. The effect of the lyric builds cumulatively from the beginning: we learn that the song is a song about a song that evokes a memory, and it's easy to get on board with that idea when you're listening to a song. Is "Begin the Beguine" the beguine that begins the singer's trip down memory lane? Technically, no, because a beguine is actually a slow dance in 3/4 time, and "Begin the Beguine" is in up-tempo, 4/4 time. But the imagery is all in place by the end of the second stanza — stars, shore, orchestra, palm trees, tropical splendor — and when the melody soars to its highest note in the line "And there we are, swearing to love forever" — well, there we are.