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Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. I want to present her to you in the way that, so far as I can judge, shows best what is memorable about her. The singers may love something which we do not all know and the connoisseurs may have memories of her singing that we cannot all share. But the albums she recorded, especially the ones that recapitulate and thus justify the great American songbook, are a possession for all, and one of the small blessings that add joy to life.
My friend Mark would say something like this about Ella Fitzgerald, that she is at home wherever she chooses to sing, and she chooses freely. To understand what it means to be at home in being free in singing seems to me to understand the delight Ella offers and the cause finally of her dominating American popular music in her time. I want to show you a few things about Ella’s art and the poetic effects she desired to achieve and achieved effortlessly. I will look to the great American songbook, because Ella’s career, moving away from jazz and bebop, only attained to greatness when she turned to the standards in the Fifties, when she was no longer a girl. It is no surprise that the most gifted singer of her time should have taken her sweet time to get to the most worthwhile songs. After all, in America the excellent were called standards…
Before popular music involved itself with democratic politics and America’s incessant revolutions, it had a kind of strange authority–most obvious in the great American songbook. The mere suggestion, close to a canon, implies not only knowledge of American music, but a confidence that endless change is not America’s destiny–that some precious things will not be rendered unto oblivion. In the great writers, musicians, and singers, America had a sure defense against forgetfulness and its ugliest child, ingratitude. The songbook was not merely heard, but read–Americans used to buy untold numbers of copies of the sheet music to loved songs. In this dispersal lay safety, because Americans are jealous of their possessions, and can therefore defend them. In this proliferation of novelties, the great could grow among the mediocre, the memorable among the forgettable, and the deep insights among the frivolities.
I have chosen two Cole Porter songs from her ’56 album dedicated to this most delightful and immoral of the famous writers of the jazz era. He was the most sophisticated of the writers who introduced modern love to America and much in need of the moderating influences of a singer whose confidence exceeded the boundaries of popularity or talent. Invariably, reading Cole Porter’s lyrics, one feels that lovers today would fail to understand most of the things he says, and yet he speaks to and about their experience far more than about any phenomena of his own time. In this sense, if only they gain access to his work, young Americans would gain a necessary counter-poison to the passions stirred and complicated by their own popular music. There are two gates of access to Cole Porter–the one is Sinatra–the other Fitzgerald. Of the two, she is the voice of moderation, playful where Porter would be reckless, which Sinatra tended to glamorize.
Cole Porter wrote “You’d Be So Easy to Love“ for Anything Goes in 1934, a show so full of wonderful numbers that he cut it. It was instead introduced in a 1936 movie, Born to Dance. If you can believe it, Jimmy Stewart was involved, not the very model of a modern major hoofer or crooner. The lyrics are incredibly sophisticated, but at the same time effortless. It gives the speech of a lover who contemplates his extreme longing and the vision of a happy future it promises even as he acknowledges its illusory character–this speech is for the benefit of an audience who is not even asked to reciprocate. Will the beloved be charmed by music where love would otherwise not inspire? Is the love speech itself the charm that the lover concocts to achieve what the love speech promises?
I know too well that I’m just wasting precious time
in thinking such a thing could be, that you could ever care for me.
I’m sure you hate to hear that I adore you, dear,
but grant me, just the same, I’m not entirely to blame…
The verse is unabashedly apologetic. This lover knows his pleas fall on deaf ears, but he persists. Were this as artless a profession of love as it pretends to be, it would make no sense. But art will overcome willfulness now and again, so why not try? And, too, persistence is in itself flattering, added to the flattery of being recognized in one’s inaccessible perfection.
What the voice adds here is sweetness and patience. The melody is simple, pleasing, and clever. The odd lines, so seemingly apologetic, rise delightfully and give the lie. Music is here using manners or politeness to defeat their purpose! So that it is less of a surprise that the lower melody of the even lines is sung with a certain insinuation–there is a hint in the voice that there is some collusion between singer and audience, and not so much innocence as professed. The singing suggests, at the end of the verse, a lingering coyness.
You’d be so easy to love!
So easy to idolize all others above!
So worth the yearning for,
so swell to keep every home fire burning for!
This is what prepares the introduction of the chorus, which expresses longing in a very powerful way before moving on to melody. Porter was a master of alternating natural facts with sophisticated phrases to create allure or tension or even shock. This is how the chorus begins and Ella is remarkably frank in giving voice to the erotic longing and then returning to it in the third line. The alternation of short and long lines also suggests erotic elation: Anticipating joy is its own argument, so to speak.
And we would be so grand at the game,
carefree together, that it does seem a shame
that you can’t see your future with me!
‘Cause you’d be, oh, so easy to love!
Afterward comes a more modest, wistful statement. This achieves a certain balance, by contrasts. The poetic effect depends on this sophisticated move from offering a vision of love, a spontaneous experience coming to speech, to an offer of possession of that vision to the speechless audience. You can say that the lover is all eyes, then all mouth; but the beloved is all ears. The adjective we would reach for, to describe Ella’s moving in between the three different parts of the speech, is natural. And yet all this comes by an art complementary to the poet’s art. Singing is as much a seduction. Lovers naturally try to make themselves pleasing, which beloveds do not, for they are naturally pleasing already. The artful learn artlessness from the artless. The work of poetry, however, is to offer something that could interest a beloved in becoming a lover–another kind of beauty. Love is all about complicating innocence.