By Billy Goodrum
In 1935, in the middle of the South Pacific somewhere between Indonesia
and Fiji, on board the ocean liner RMS Franconia, Cole Porter wrote the song
“Begin the Beguine”. I find it appropriate that it was written at sea. The
Ocean of Love’s favorite song was written in the middle of the ocean. A few
years later, it was the first hit for Artie Shaw and His Orchestra and
propelled them to fame. A year later, Chick Henderson recorded it and that
version became the only song of the 1930s to sell over a million copies.
Baba heard many versions of the song over the years. He had a copy of
the Chick Henderson version in India that they listened to enough to wear
the record out. When it wasn’t playable any more, Baba requested another
one and the Bing Crosby version was sent. Apparently, Baba didn’t like
Bing’s version very much but would still listen to it on occasion.
In December 1968, Fred Marks sent Leslie (Hutch) Hutchinson’s 1939
recording of the song to Baba. Hutch Hutchinson was one of the most
popular cabaret singers in the world in the 1920s and 30s. At one point
he was romantically involved with Tallulah Bankhead, who famously met
Baba in Hollywood in the 1930s.
Hutch Hutchinson’s recording of “Begin the Beguine” was the one that was
played multiple times when Baba dropped His body: first in the house at
Meherazad and later when they moved Baba’s body to the Tin Cabin and
the Tomb on Meherabad Hill. Baba had instructed Eruch many times to
make sure that he played “Begin the Beguine” when He dropped His body
and they brought a phonograph and the record with them when they moved
Baba’s body to Meherabad.
What is it about “Begin the Beguine”? As a musician and composer I can say
it is an example of difficult and atypical songwriting. There are six stanzas
and none of them repeat, which is unusual in a popular song . There are
some verses that are similar, but none identical as it twists and winds and
builds to a crescendo. It has been recorded by a countless number of
artists and is most likely among the songs that is always playing
somewhere in the world at any given moment.
In that regard it has brought a spark of joy or solace to many Baba lovers.
I once unexpectedly and happily heard it in a shop in Tokyo. Just the other
day, I saw a Facebook post in which someone described hearing the song
in a cafe after a mediocre job interview. He wrote that hearing it
happenstance like that reminded him that Baba is always with him. When
Filis Frederick and Adele Wolkin were leaving The Meher Center with
heavy hearts after staying with Baba in 1952, they heard it in the Myrtle
Beach bus station. Knowing it was Baba’s favorite song lifted their spirits.
But it wasn’t until recently that I realized it is far more than Baba’s favorite
song and have become aware of the intense level of attention that Baba
gave to the song and its lyrics. In a conversation with Daniel Ladinsky at
Meherazad, Eruch talked about “Begin the Beguine”:
“Do you know about Baba’s—and my—marriage to ‘Begin the Beguine’? For
that is really what it was. I carried the words of that song in my pocket for
years, and I still have them in my room. Whenever Baba left Meherazad—
for years—he would want to make sure I had that song with me. And he
would not ask just once, but could ask so many times (and from different
angles) . . . that it would defy reason. That song Baba really made sacred—
and a prayer. And everyone should really know the words. And I could say
to you that ‘Begin the Beguine’ is my greatest link to the world of art—music,
and it is the last song I ever sang . . . besides singing Happy Birthday to
people. True. And in some ways one could say those words, in ‘Begin the
Beguine’, were Baba’s greatest link to the world of human music and
human art. They surely were mine.”
Once while visiting Nariman and Arnavaz’s apartment in Bombay, Baba
asked Eruch if he knew the song. When he replied in the negative, Baba
asked Mani to sing it to him. She has described how it seemed unusual in
that she had never spoken to Eruch in the twenty years since he had joined the
mandali and here Baba wanted her to sing to him. I find it utterly charming
that Baba used “Begin the Beguine” as the icebreaker between the two of
them and used the situation as a vehicle for His work with Mani, Eruch, and
the song itself.
Meher Baba works in many unusual, surprising, and incomprehensible ways
in the world, and imbuing a beautiful, quirky popular song with His charge is
certainly one of them. So . . .
. . . let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you
Till you whisper to me once more: “Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in
When they begin the beguine.
Published March, 2018
See full lyrics of Begin the Beguine.
Hear Leslie (Hutch) Hutchinson’s version of Begin the Beguine.