Today’s birthday boy is Cole Porter, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and whose work I mainly know as performed by the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald on Ella Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. Today’s song is from Porter’s most successful musical, derived from the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, called Kiss Me, Kate (1948). So the song is sung by a character who likes to play the field; more to the point, she protests to her lover that, though she steps out often with well-heeled older men, her heart still belongs to him.
I suppose one might wonder, what with “Boots” a day ago, why I’m featuring these songs of young women chiding men by brandishing their desirability and their ability to use sex appeal to get what they want. No clue. Suffice to say, I’ve always been the type to believe that it’s “lady’s choice” when it comes to the give and take of “will she, won’t she” and so find nothing off-putting about the women in these respective songs stating their cases. I should note, though, that the lyrics they mouth so coyly were written by men.
In the case of “Always True,” we’re dealing with a fictional character in a musical, and that character gets to “speak” in the kind of winning and wonderfully witty lyrics that only Cole Porter could fashion. And “fashion” is a key word here: “true in my fashion” is a way of saying that the girl knows enough to assert her personal style as both the thing her lover loves about her as well as the thing that attracts a slew of sugar daddies, but, as well, her fashion (in terms of what she is able to wear) is dependent upon the favor of rich men. We might, uncharitably, say she’s whoring herself, but Porter’s tongue-in-cheek lyric encourages us to accept her viewpoint as sensible and practical. In any case, anyone who is able to put it out there the way Ella does in this song should be welcome to whatever rewards are showered upon her.
It’s not quite the song I would choose as a really breathtaking showcase of Ella’s vocalizing—and she sings it brightly, giving full attention to its flippancy. The slightly (deliberately) cloying tune that comes in the chorus (sounding a bit like something from the nursery delivered for her “big baby,” crying over what he must accept) finds Ella, as ever, inserting changes in emphasis and phrasing that make it, each time, a new discovery. We might say that each man introduced, in all his ample attendance on her, must be given a send-off in a slightly different manner.
As a song to showcase Porter it’s not his most tuneful nor his most intricate, nor even his cleverest, but it is plenty clever. And Ella’s fun with Porter’s fun is lots of fun for us too. The swift characterizations are wonderful: “Mr. Horn once cornered corn and that ain’t hay!” or “Mr. Fritz invented Schlitz and Schlitz must pay,” giving us a kind of rogue’s gallery of CEO types who are able and willing to pay for charming company. I have to admit that the first time I heard this song, I envied these guys, while I toiled away on a dissertation on the novel. Yeah, like that’s gonna be my ship come in.
The men with money make the world go round and live that “emperors of the world” kind of thing, one imagines. “What of that,” Hamlet says, “those of us with free hearts, it touches us not.” Maybe not, but when we notice the girl of our dreams shying toward the high rollers (“a girl has to get by” she may be thinking) we have to accede that there are other ways to play the game than that of earnest schnook. Anyway, that’s what Porter’s wry little tune lets us contemplate. My favorite verse:
Mister Harris, plutocrat,
Wants to give my cheek a pat
If a Harris pat means a Paris hat, pay, pay!
That’s the kind of fun with words that make a song work so well on the stage, a kind of tripping the light fantastic that wins the day. Similarly, another date, a vet, gets: “when the vet begins to pet, I shout ‘Hurray!’” That line, in the opening verse as Ella sings it, lets us know our girl is out for fun wherever it can be found. None of that “heart of gold” stuff, this gold-digger is irrepressible and stylish. And who’s to say she’s not “always true in her fashion”? The means by which each man is given something to hope for, something to be pleased by, and something elusive is where the skill comes in, we imagine. But something true? That’s in her baldly calculating appraisal of the men in her life.