The Return of Cole Porter–“An Old-Fashioned Garden”

The featured image shows Cole Porter surrounded by the two female stars of the movie version of Kiss Me, Kate.

We just finished with some memorable songs written by Irving Berlin for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. The next composer to put out a hit song was Cole Porter, whose first show on Broadway in 1916, See America First, was an utter disaster, both financially and artistically. Bruised but not bettered, Cole assessed the failure and determined what needed improvement. In addition, he had to get his self-confidence back; and, bit by bit, Cole Porter found his footing and went on to become a great American composer.

Berlin and Porter. No two people could be more different in background or artistic temperament. Berlin came from Russia, lived in extreme poverty, sang on street corners to stay alive, worked for others and then formed his own publishing company and owned his own theatre, The Music Box.

Porter came from wealth, was educated at Yale and married a society woman who helped shepherd his career. Slight of build, Cole could be extremely willful, which led to a disastrous riding accident from which he never fully healed.

Berlin was a man of the people who wrote both the music and lyrics. His melodies were simple, and his compositional skills were limited. Yet, he wrote songs that touched our hearts in their profound simplicity.

Porter also wrote both the music and lyrics; but he was well-educated, capable of writing sophisticated music and witty, clever lyrics, filled with sexual innuendo and double entendre (double meaning, one of which was sexual).

These men could not have been more different; yet, with all of their differences, they were also close friends. As George M. Cohan once wrote, “Life is a funny proposition, after all.”

Porter wrote the songs for a revue called, Hitchy-Koo of 1919, which opened on Broadway on October 6, 1919 and ran for only 56 performances. Yet out of this modest revue came a wonderful song, “An Old-Fashioned Garden.” It sounds staid and dignified, placid and serene. It is anything but old-fashioned. Here are the lyrics:

One summer day I chanced to stray
To a garden of flow’rs blooming wild,
It took me once more
To the days of yore
And a spot that I loved as a child.
There were the phlox,
Tall hollyhocks,
Violets perfuming the air,
Frail eglantines,
Shy columbines,
And marigolds everywhere.
It was an old fashioned garden,
Just an old fashioned garden,
But it carried me back
To that dear little shack
In the land of long ago.
I saw an old-fashioned Missus
Getting old-fashioned kisses,
In that old-fashioned garden
From an old-fashioned beau.

His lyrics are more than tongue in cheek; they are sardonic or “skeptically humorous.” Take his use of “yore,” a word meaning according to Webster, “time past and especially long past.” How could the narrator be taken back to a time before his birth?

Second, this garden is not tended but “blooming wild.” In a sense, we see a teeming garden that is overgrown.

And what of the flowers that were blooming there? This is not a typical garden of roses, daffodils, daisies, carnations or tulips. Let me list the names of the flowers and their definitions:

Phlox—67 species of perennial and annual plants, from the Greek word flame;

Hollyhocks—Alcea is a genus of about 60 species of flowering plants in the mallow family Malvaceae, commonly known as hollyhocks;

Eglantine is known as Rosa rubiginosa or sweetbriar rose, sweet brier or eglantine; and

Columbines—perennial wildflower in woodland or mixed border garden; website angel fire, giving a woman a columbine flower is considered bad luck, they are the symbol of foolishness for resemblance to a jester’s five-pronged cap.

All of these flowers could have been growing in the wild; however, how many people would know these flowers by formal name? He was not laughing at himself or with the audience; he was occasionally laughing at the audience because it would not understand nor appreciate his allusions, his wit or his wordplay.

The American people didn’t take offense; quite frankly, they didn’t seem to care.

Next we get to the first clear dissonant note in his lyrics: “But it carried me back/ To that dear little shack.”

Shack? Why use “shack,” meaning a hut or shanty; perhaps a lean-to or shed. So, we immediately see an antithetical use of “dear little” when it is combined with a lean-to or shed.

Cole Porter is playing with us.

He could have rhymed: “It could take me away to that house on the bay.”

On the other hand, he may have wanted to allude to “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” the 1878 song written by James A. Bland, an African-American who wrote over 700 songs. We will never know; there is no explanatory trail.

The song was introduced by Lillian Kemble Cooper and the ensemble; the singer was giving first hand testimony that she saw a married woman (“missus”) getting kisses in the garden “from an old-fashioned beau,” indicating a man other than her husband.

What is a married woman doing getting kisses from a beau? Cole Porter is providing the audience with an elegantly worded picture of an extra-marital affair.