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Cole Porter

4 Sep

A touch of class now, I think, and also another retrospective post, but one which I’m sure you’ll excuse.

I feel privileged to have fallen in love with an era when music underwent a revolution. I’m not talking about the 1960s either, a decade of which I’m very fond.

Until the beginning of the 20th century Classical music had dominated the creative world as the ultimate expression in sound. ‘Popular music’ was, by comparison, a shoddy cousin, that entertained in the Music Halls but was not seen as having much emotional or intellectual worth.


Cole Porter changed all this. He was unique in many ways, not least because he was a master lyricist as well as composer. Classical music had gone on a tangent that would see it becoming more avant-garde and less pleasing to the general public. Popular song and music was quick to up its ante and fill that gap. Porter led the way and although his work was not Jazz, he understood the genre, and his songs became part of the soundtrack to The Jazz Age in the 1920s and beyond. Interestingly, many of his songs sound remarkable when interpreted by the black singers of the day such as Billie Holliday or Louis Armstrong. The compositions were well suited to the Jazz style.

I know relatively little about the language of music, except of how it speaks to me, but Porter was something else. Even a musical amateur like me can tell that. A lot of his work features extensive use of semitones that (correct me if I’m wrong) are notes next to each other on the scale (or very near). This gave Porter’s work a very exotic and foreign feel (as in Eastern music) and rather out of step with most other Western music. Some of his lyrics are remarkably fluid while retaining rhythm that the likes of Eminem or Jay-Z would envy in their rapping. Think of “Anything goes” for example, arguably one of Porter’s most famous songs.

In a world were many songs in the charts are, quite frankly, appallingly slovenly written affairs, Porter still shines the way. Without him there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for emotionally observant songwriters of decades since, from Dylan to David Grey, from Lennon/McCartney to Carole King. He is the granddaddy of 20th century popular music, and his like took the reins of the increasingly pretentious and inaccessible beast of classical music and rode things in a different direction more in tune with the general public. But he did it in style and with the verve and wit that all good music needs. He may not have been a classical composer, but he was probably better than some of them.

Critics panned one of his later shows, but one of the songs from it (“Every time we say goodbye”) struck a chord with the American public that it became an anthem of tearful farewell in 1944 as sweethearts parted to go to war.

This is why critics often get it wrong- they think too much when they should be feeling. Porter knew what the public were feeling and wrote accordingly.

For those reasons and more, I love his music, and will always want it under my skin.