Playing By Ear: From Walt Whitman to Cole Porter

We listened to an NPR story about Cole Porter’s ‘You’re theTop that made me think for the first time about Porter’s place in the Whitman tradition. N PR featured song snippets from a vintage 1930s Victor recording of Cole singing and playing the piano. In the course of the radio piece you probably hear all the lyrics, but not at once and not in order. I expected NPR Music’s web page to include rich documentation, photos, and a link to the original recording, but no such luck. I searched for Porter’s Victor recordings on Amazon et al and found everything but what I wanted. Ms. Modigliani searched YouTube and found it as the soundtrack to a Louise Brooks tribute.

I’ve heard the song many times before, of course, and was charmed by its lyrical wit. Listening to Cole Porter sing it, I was struck by its avant garde poetry. It clearly fits in the Whitman tradition of the catalog or list poem, with repetition at the beginning of the line and surprising invention at the end. It fits the Whitmanesque American vernacular idiom. And it has a startling mix of high/low, European/American cultural references that make it as sophisticated and brash as any French Surrealist poem from the same time period. I never imagined ranking Cole Porter with William Carlos Wiliams, Allen Ginsberg, or Frank O’Hara, but when you listen to him sing “You’re the Top” you know that’s where he belongs.

Another surprise in this recording is the deft syncopation of Cole Porter’s piano hand. Thelonious Monk might have learned something from him.

The search continues for a CD with this particular Victor recording. Along the way, I found interesting Cole Porter links at the Indiana Historical Society, Wikipedia, and NYT feature resources. Read the song lyrics.

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