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Cole Porter: the tinpantithesis of poetry

Cole Porter was one of the few songwriters of his era who wrote both music and lyrics. Another was his friend Irving Berlin. The two men shared a private joke. Whenever a songwriting team–such as Ira and George Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, or Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern—had a hit, Porter and Berlin would say to each other, “To think it took two people to write one song!”

In answer to to that perennial question, “Which comes first—the music or the lyrics?” the answer for most songwriting teams of the era from 1920 through the 1950s was: the music.  The composer—Kern, George Gershwin, Rodgers—completed a melody, then the lyricist—Hart, Ira Gershwin, Hammerstein—fitted syllable to note, verbal phrase to musical phrase. It was like working a musical crossword puzzle.

That some of these songwriters could produce lyrics and music that rivaled that of their heroes, William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, is impressive, since, with Gilbert and Sullivan, it was the words that came first. Gilbert would write what was essentially a light-verse poem and give it to Sullivan to set to music.  That’s why Gilbert’s lyrics scan in regular poetic rhythm:

When I merely from him parted,
We were nearly broken hearted.
When in sequel reunited,
We were equally delighted.

The rhythm is in the words.

But in American songwriting the rhythm is in the music; lyrics fitted to that musical rhythm seem “unpoetic” when we read them on the page:

Some get a kick from cocaine.
I’m sure that if
I took even one sniff
It would bore me teriff’
ically too.

But such lyrics sound wonderfully conversational when set to music. While Porter, like Irving Berlin, could match lyrics to music simultaneously, he still had to do what all collaborative lyricists did: take the American vernacular and make it sing.

Tricks of the trade

One way to start was to find a repeated musical phrase and match it to a colloquial catchphrase—with a romantic twist: ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’; ‘Night and Day’; ‘Riding High’; ‘Just One of Those Things’; ‘From This Moment On’; ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ Even an unromantic catchphrase—you’re getting under my skin—could be given an erotic turn: ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’

Another technique was what songwriters called “singability”—placing long vowels over long notes, so that a singer could sustain syllables and project them to the last row of the balcony. The word “love” has no long vowels, but look how Porter surrounds it with long open o and closed e vowels:

You’d be so easy to love
So easy to idolize all others above

A related technique was “memorability”—imbedding tiny repeated internal rhymes into a lyric that insinuated themselves into a reader’s subconscious:

Do do that voodoo that you do so well

One of Porter’s cleverest “memorable” lines was a substitution.  He’d originally written:

I shouldn’t care for those nights in the air
That the fair Mrs. Lindbergh goes through

But after the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, Porter changed the line to:

Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do

Frank Sinatra, as he often did, altered the lyric by singing:

Flying too high with some gal in the sky

But, then, Frank didn’t fly with guys.

Wordplay

After coming up with a catchphrase title, building in singability and memorability, the lyricist could indulge in linguistic playfulness. Porter was the master of the “catalog” song, which consists of a list of images and allusions, each one wittier than the one that preceded it. After years of being dismissed by Broadway producers as a dilettante—he was born into a wealthy family in Indiana, went to Yale and Harvard—he had his first major success in 1928 with a musical called Paris, which featured ‘Let’s Do It,’ a song so risqué—for 1928—that it had to be subtitled (Let’s Fall in Love) to be aired on radio.

In six refrains, Porter listed how various creatures—humans, fish, birds, insects—did ‘it,’ playing with words in such phrases as “Lithuanians and Letts do it,” “katydids do it,” and “moths in your rug do it—what’s the use of moth balls?”

In his greatest catalog song, ‘You’re the Top,’ from his 1934 Broadway show Anything Goes, he mingled images of high European and American pop culture:

You’re a rose,
You’re Inferno’s Dante.
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.

‘You’re the Top’ was so popular that Porter kept adding refrains. And, less reverently, so did other songwriters. One of the most notorious parodies went:

You’re the burning heat
Of a bridal suite
In use.
You’re the breasts of Venus,
You’re King Kong’s penis,
You’re self-abuse.

Years later Porter learned that the author of that particular parody was his old friend, Irving Berlin.

For sheer linguistic play, no catalog song tops Porter’s ‘It’s Delovely.’ The list consists of words that begin with the same prefix, starting off with,

It’s delightful, it’s delicious,
It’s delectable, it’s delirious

But then the lyric takes off into the “Brooklynese” of “delimit,” “deluxe” (which Porter insisted should be pronounced “de-lukes”), “de-Wunderbar,” “de vallop,” “de voiks,” “de-reamy,” “de-rowsy,” and “de-Ritz.” In a song that celebrates the inexhaustible fertility of nature in the spring, Porter rivals nature with his own verbal fecundity.