Begin the Beguine

Reviewed by mojo

Ya know, the annoying thing about falling in love is, you can't really explain yourself or your actions on a rational level. Which is part of the mystery, and gives all the songwriters something to sing about. My Favorite Husband, for example, who is indeed a wonderful kind intelligent man, did not--um, how do I put this? He did not look so good on paper as I knew him in my heart. Enough that some well-meaning folks were a wee bit concerned that such a fine upstanding young citizen like Mojo would want to be seen in public with the likes. Well, okay, maybe not THAT bad. But he's had a colorful past, as opposed to the gray dreariness of Mojo's life prior to meeting him. And don't tell him this, 'cuz it will only set me up for WEEKS of merciless teasing, but the worshipful adoration has only grown worse in the intervening twenty-five years or so. 'Tis indeed a mysterious curse.

This is my quandry with "Begin the Beguine". I'd have to say this is up there, probably in my TOP FIVE all time Ella favorites. But if you were to ask me WHY, I couldn't really say. And it's THIS PARTICULAR recording that gets to me. In fact, one of my complaints about the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely, with Kevin Kline, is that they use this song, but in an absolutely DREADFUL slowed-down dirge. I spent most of the film not watching it and instead complaining about how they RUINED one of my most favoritest Cole Porter songs. But again, I don't think it's the SONG as much as THIS VERSION of the song. Which, in case you haven't been paying attention, I absolutely adore.

The song itself is a great song. It tells a specific story, through lyrics and chord changes, from happy majors to a disturbing minor, and then back to a rather forced, defiant major again. The lyrics are unsurpassed, aching for the love and happiness that once was, and I believe my favorite part of all is the minor slide up the scale as the singer laments, "And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted..." *sob!* It just grabs me.

But why exactly THIS song? I wish I knew. Believe me, I've thought about this and thought about this, and I don't have an answer for you. All I can do is enjoy it. And that's all ya really need to do in life, anyway...

Begin the Beguine (1956)

Click below to hear a sample--or scroll down for associated media: 
Disc Number: 
Cole Porter
Cole Porter

From Wikipedia:


"Begin the Beguine" is a song written by Cole Porter (1891–1964). Porter composed the song at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. In October 1935, it was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee produced at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Based on the title dance, the song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical "standard" popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, "Begin the Beguine" employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final "C2" section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form.

The slight differences in each of the "A" sections and the song's long phrases to start with coupled with having the final elongated "C2" section at the end of the song make for it being a song of unique character and complexity. The fact that the song's individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter's talent and ability as a songwriter.

Porter once said of the song, "I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!" Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as "a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music."[1]

Probably due to its exceedingly long form and not being "conventional" (i.e., thirty-two-bars) the song made little impact with regard to general popularity. Three years later, however, bandleader Artie Shaw wrote an arrangement of the song in collaboration with his right-hand Arranger / Orchestrator Jerry Gray.

Upon entering the recording studio after signing a new recording contract with RCA Victor records in the summer of 1938, Shaw called up "Beguine" to be the first of six tunes he would record at his initial recording session on July 24. Until then Shaw's band had been having a very tough time finding an identity and maintaining its existence without having had any popular hits of significance; his previous recording contract with Brunswick had lapsed at the end of 1937 without being renewed.

Whatever the case, the release of Shaw's recording of "Beguine" skyrocketed him and his band to fame and popularity exceedingly fast. The recording, indeed, became one of the most famous and popular anthems of the entire Swing Era. At the time, though, recording managers at RCA Victor had no interest in Shaw recording the song and it was only as a result of Shaw's pleading that they allowed him to record it.

RCA's pessimism with the whole idea of recording the long tune "that nobody could remember from beginning to end anyway" sealed its fate as being released on the "B" side of the record it appeared on. Shaw's persistance to record it was justified, though, and it became a best-selling record in 1938 by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra issued by Bluebird Records as catalog number B-7746 B. Subsequent re-releases by RCA Victor as catalog number 20-1551[2] and other releases on LPs, tapes and CDs have kept the recording readily available continuously to the present ever since its initial release.

Later on, when composer Cole Porter met the by-then famous bandleader, he jokingly remarked to Shaw, "I'm glad to finally meet my collaborator." Shaw reportedly replied, "Does this mean I get half of the royalties?"

A beguine is a spirited ballroom dance. Since "begin" and "beguine" are often pronounced the same by some people, it is common to see the song's title misspelled as "Begin the Begin", as when used satirically by R.E.M. as the title to a track on Lifes Rich Pageant.