Begin the Beguine

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Not to be confused with the R.E.M. song "Begin the Begin" or the television episode "Begin the Begin" (Grey's Anatomy).
"Begin the Beguine"
Single by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (original issues as "Art" Shaw)
A-side "Indian Love Call"
B-side "Begin the Beguine"
Recorded July 24, 1938, New York City
Genre Jazz
Length 3:11
Label Bluebird
Songwriter(s) Cole Porter; arranged by Artie Shaw and Jerry Gray

"Begin the Beguine" is a popular song written by Cole Porter. Porter composed the song between Kalabahi, Indonesia, and Fiji during a 1935 Pacific cruise aboard Cunard's ocean liner Franconia.[1] In October 1935, it was introduced by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee, produced at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.[2]


A Beguine was originally a Christian lay woman of the 13th or 14th century living in a religious community without formal vows, but in the creole of the Caribbean, especially in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the term came to mean "white woman", and then to be applied to a style of music and dance, and in particular a slow, close couples' dance. This combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance became popular in Paris and spread further abroad in the 1940s, largely due to the influence of the Porter song.[citation needed]

Based on the title dance, the song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical "standard" popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, "Begin the Beguine" employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final "C2" section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form.[citation needed]

The slight differences in each of the "A" sections, along with the song's long phrases and final elongated "C2" section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song's individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter's talent and ability as a songwriter.

Musicologist and composer Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950 as "a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music ... about the sixtieth measure I find myself muttering another title, End the Beguine."[3]

Artie Shaw version[edit]

At first, the song gained little popularity, perhaps because of its length and unconventional form. Josephine Baker danced to it in her return to America in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, but neither she nor the song were successful. Two years later, however, bandleader Artie Shaw recorded an arrangement of the song, an extended swing orchestra version, in collaboration with his arranger and orchestrator, Jerry Gray.

After signing a new recording contract with RCA Victor Shaw chose "Begin the Beguine" to be the first of six tunes he would record with his new 14 piece band at this, his first recording session with RCA. The session was held at RCA's "Studio 2" on East 24th Street in New York on July 24, 1938.[4] Until then, Shaw's band had been having a tough time finding an identity and maintaining its existence without having had any popular hits of significance; his previous recording contract with Brunswick had lapsed at the end of 1937 without being renewed.

RCA's pessimism with the whole idea of recording the long tune "that nobody could remember from beginning to end anyway" resulted in it being released on the "B" side of the record "Indian Love Call", issued by Bluebird Records as catalog number B-7746 B. Shaw's persistence paid off, though, when "Begin the Beguine" became a best-selling record in 1938, peaking at No. 3., skyrocketing Shaw and his band to fame and popularity. The recording became one of the most famous and popular anthems of the entire Swing Era. Subsequent re-releases by RCA Victor (catalog number 20-1551)[5] and other releases on LPs, tapes and CDs have kept the recording readily available continuously ever since its initial release.

Later popularity[edit]

After Shaw introduced the song to dance halls, MGM brought out the musical film Broadway Melody of 1940, in which Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced to "Begin the Beguine". In short order, all the major big bands recorded it, including Harry James, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, often as an instrumental, as in the film. As a vocal song, it also became a pop standard, beginning with Porter and Tony Martin; new interpretations are often still measured against renditions by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley did an adaptation of his own. "Begin the Beguine" became such a classic during World War II that Max Beckmann adopted the title for a painting in 1946 (now at University of Michigan Museum of Art).

Releases by notable artists[edit]

In film[edit]

  • Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced to an instrumental version in Broadway Melody of 1940.
  • Deanna Durbin sang it in Hers to Hold (1943).
  • In the 1946 Porter biographical film Night and Day, Latin singer Carlos Ramirez performed this song.
  • "Begin the Beguine" was referenced in the 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine in a conversation between the characters John and Jeremy.
  • It was also sung by Sammy Davis Jr. in Moon Over Parador.
  • Begin the Beguine was the chosen English title for Volver a Empezar (José Luis Garci, 1982), the first Spanish film to win an Academy Award in Hollywood for a foreign language movie. Garci includes another tribute to Cole Porter in another of his films, You're the One (2000).
  • The song is featured in the 1989 documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, during the chapters in which Greenberg is drafted into the armed forces and in a part of the chapter about the relationship between Greenberg and his wife Carol.
  • "Begin the Beguine" is sung by actress Melora Hardin in the South Seas Club scene in The Rocketeer (1991).
  • An instrumental march arrangement appears on the soundtrack of Evil Under the Sun (1982).
  • Sheryl Crow performs the song in De-Lovely (2004), a biographical film about Porter.
  • Instrumental music played during a ballroom scene in the 2008 movie Australia includes "Begin the Beguine", performed by Australian clarinetist Andy Firth and the Ralph Pyle Big Band.
  • In Hope and Glory, the song is sung by the character Dawn (Sammi Davis) while her family is repairing windows broken during an air raid.
  • It is played in The Josephine Baker Story (1991).
  • It is used in Ballet Shoes (2007).
  • It is used extensively, in three different forms, in Undertaking Betty (2002).
  • It is mentioned in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid in the song Under the Sea.

Other media[edit]

  • A character in Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero (2007) refers to this song several times.
  • A heavily modified Mustang P51 racing aircraft called Beguine was fielded in the 1949 National Air Races, the musical score was painted in gold over the dark blue fuselage. It crashed on a nearby house in Berea, Ohio, during the race killing pilot Bill Odom and two people in the house. The National Air Races were discontinued after the accident.[20]
  • The song is quoted musically and affectionately parodied in Noël Coward's tongue-twisting 1944 song Nina.
  • It is mentioned several times in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. Milton Stephanides, father of the novel's main character, Cal, plays the song on his clarinet to woo Tessie, Cal's mother.
  • In the short story "Julio Iglesias" by Haruki Murakami, Iglesias' recording of the song proves to be unbearable to a group of sea turtles.
  • Fictional Medal of Honor recipient Ernie Yost sings the song in an episode of NCIS when he proclaims his love for Artie Shaw over Benny Goodman in the episode "Call of Silence".
  • The song is mentioned on the television sitcom Mama's Family Season 2 Episode 1
  • In a sixth-season The West Wing episode called "A Good Day", President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) sings part of the song while dancing in the Oval Office with the First Lady, Abby (Stockard Channing).
  • The song is played aboard the Bianca Pride in Paule Marshall's novel, Praisesong for the Widow.
  • There is a reference to the song in a lyric in Under The Sea from Disney's The Little Mermaid when Sebastian sings "Under the sea, under the sea, when the sardine begin the beguine it's music to me".
  • Leland Palmer calls out the song's title after fainting in the first episode of the second season of Twin Peaks.
  • The song plays in the background of a scene in the 2006 South Park episode, "Smug Alert!".
  • Tim Curry sings begin the beguine in the song "Anything Can Happen on Halloween" from The Worst Witch (film).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cryer, Max. "Love Me Tender: the stories behind the world's favourite songs" (Auckland: Exisie Publishing Co., 2008), pp. 86–89
  2. ^ Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (1st ed.). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. p. 219. ISBN 0-85112-250-7. 
  3. ^ Wilder, Alec. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pg. 240
  4. ^ Inventory of the Artie Shaw Collection, 1910–2005 (bulk 1936–1955) Collection Number: MMS 5 University of Arizona School of Music page 15 retrieved August 24, 2014
  5. ^ "RCA Victor 78rpm numerical listing discography: 20-1500 – 20-2000". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  6. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 116. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  7. ^ "Loews Hotels". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  8. ^ "DECCA (USA) 78rpm numerical listing discography: 2000 – 2500". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  9. ^ "DECCA (USA) 78rpm numerical listing discography: 25000 series". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  10. ^ "RCA Victor 20-prefix 78rpm numerical listing discography: 2500 – 3000". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  11. ^ Susan Kidder Herr, "Darshan I: A Fairy Tale for Old Souls," The Awakener Magazine, vol.13, nos. 1 & 2 (1970), p. 8.
  12. ^ Fred Marks, Thoughts on Begin the Beguine, The Awakener Magazine, vol. 21, no. 2 (1985), p. 40.
  13. ^ "A Bing Crosby Discography". BING magazine. International Club Crosby. Retrieved June 20, 2017. 
  14. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 211. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  15. ^ "Frank Sinatra Discography". 
  16. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 392. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  17. ^ "Al Hirt – The Greatest Horn in the World (Vinyl, LP, Album) at Discogs". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  18. ^ , he recorded 4 versions of this song in Italian Venezia a Settembre , French Une chanson qui revient , Spanish Begin the Beguine , German aber der Traum war sehr schön Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 403. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  19. ^ "Cafe Classics (feat. Enzo Toppano) by Vov Dylan on Apple Music". iTunes. Retrieved 2017-01-27. 
  20. ^

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"Under Pressure"
by Queen & David Bowie
UK number one single (Julio Iglesias version)
December 5, 1981
for (1 week)
Succeeded by
"Don't You Want Me" by The Human League