It was written for the 1935 musical Jubilee, either on a world cruise that composer Cole Porter and playwright Moss Hart took, or while Porter was living in Paris and heard at a nightclub. Either way, the rhythmic style of “Begin the Beguine” was something quite new to the American/European market.
I’ve written about how Hart and Porter wrote Jubilee and a bit about the ridiculous plot in the previous blog, Just One of Those Things, so, if you are interested, please go check that one out. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Back so soon? I hope you enjoyed the information on Jubilee and now we can go on with “Beginning the Beguine.”
There is a lot of debate on what precisely a beguineis. I read in one article that said that on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique that beguine is the feminine form of the local Creole bekeor begue, which means a white person. I could find absolutely no corroboration on this one. According to Merriam-Webster, beguine is a noun meaning:
- A member of one of the various ascetic and philanthropic communities of women not under vows founded chiefly in the Netherlands in the 13th century
- A vigorous popular dance of the islands of Saint Lucia and Martinique that somewhat resembles the rhumba
The song was not one that people left Jubilee humming. Most popular songs ran for 32 measures. “Begin the Beguine” has, in the arrangement that I have, 112 measures! That would make 3.5 normal pop songs! And the format is also unusual. Most songs were set up with a verse- chorus, verse-chorus kind of feel. Maybe with a bridge, or middle 8 thrown in for good measure. (The bridge and the middle 8 are the same thing—usually they are 8 measures and are a different melodic pattern that bridge one section to another.) This is different:
It brings back the sound of music so tender
It brings back a night of tropical splendor,
It brings back a memory evergreen.
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,
When they begin the Beguine.
Wow, that’s a lot different from the verse-chorus routine. There is no chorus! They are all verses, and all slightly different.
When we get to “I’m with you once more”, the singer is vividly reliving this one evening. But we find out in the next section, that “to live it again is past all endeavor”. Or is it? “Except when that tune clutches my heart.”Clutches, not grabs, not holds, not clasps. Clutches. There is feeling of more desperation to clutches isn’t there? As if the tune is responsible, not the singer. And this section has brought us a lot of lowered notes, meaning that we have delved into a minor key.
“And there we are, swearing to love forever.” We have reached what in another song could be the end. We’ve had the very emotional, “and promising never, never to part.” But our memory is not done with us. The memory is turning sour. “Till clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted.” Whew, things are getting rough. “And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted.” Curseis one of the high notes in this song. All of the high notes are so well placed. In the previous section, swearingis also a high note. The vowels are easy to sing, and the words are so evocative.
Having remembered all this anguish, now we don’t want the orchestra to begin the Beguine. “So, don’t let them begin the Beguine!” This is a cry that is almost all on the high notes of the song. The memories are too painful, “let the love that was once a fire remain an ember.”
But finally, it would be too much to try and forget. “Let them begin the Beguine.” In fact, “make them play.” Once again, cried out on the song’s high note. “Till the stars that were there before return above you.” We know that that will never happen. Those stars will never return to that precise position. They not only have to return to that position, but that person must be under them. Not likely. And when we get to: “and we suddenly know what heaven we’re in,” does that mean that we are now in Hell? Or a variant thereof? Kind of sounds like it to me.
And all of this happens whenever a band plays a Beguine. To me, this is a song of such desolation. And, yet, most of the time, this character is going about their daily business (in her case, being a princess), but with this lost happiness behind her.
I had a boyfriend in college. (I had several, but this is one particular boyfriend.) He had had a girlfriend in high school that he had left behind in another state. Their song was “Babe” by Styx. Every time we would go to the local club, he would ask the DJ to play that song. And he would sit, holding my hand, and wiping tears from his eyes. (I never said he was a good boyfriend!) “Babe” was his “Beguine.”
Do you have a song that always “brings back a memory ever green?” One that makes you happy and sad every time you hear it? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll be playing some versions of this and other songs by Cole Porter this week on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so be sure to check those out!
Until next time!