March 22, 2006

Vanishing slurs

While assembling a set of performances of (and take-offs on) Cole Porter's song "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" -- for an iTunes playlist -- I came across two from the early 40s, one sung by Mary Martin (with Ray Sinatra's orchestra), the other by Billie Holiday (with Eddie Heywood's orchestra), in which the first line of the first verse (after an intro) has the arresting words "Chinks do it, Japs do it" ("Up in Lapland little Lapps do it") in it.  (Martin sings Porter's original "And that's why Chinks do it, Japs do it", but Holiday gets right to the Chinks.)

Needless to say, these ethnic slurs rapidly vanished from the song, usually in favor of "Birds do it, bees do it" ("Even educated fleas do it").

The bees and fleas have been moved up from verse 4, the insect verse (verse 1 features nationalities, verse 2 birds, verse 3 sea creatures, verse 5 higher animals): "Locusts in trees do it, bees do it, / Even highly educated fleas do it".  Starting with locusts would be pretty lame, but the bees in the second half of the line naturally suggest that there should be birds in the first half.  Sometimes the fleas are highly educated, but most of the time they're just (normally) educated.

The song is from the show "Paris" (1928).  I'm getting the words from the 1971 volume Cole (edited by Robert Kimball, with a biographical essay by Brendan Gill), pp. 88-9.  Singers vary the words in various ways, skip verses, take them in different orders, keep the (cutesy) intro or cut it, but most of the performances around stick surprisingly close to the words I have (including the wonderful line "Lithuanians and Letts do it").  The exception is, famously, Noël Coward, who kept the tune and the repeated line "Let's do it, let's fall in love", but (from his first cabaret performances of it in 1955) constantly varied everything else, supplying new, gayer and more topical, versions ("Even Liberace, we assume, does it") from one occasion to the next.

The song is of course one giant double entendre, in which "fall in love" refers to what is euphemistically called "making love".   This is clear in a couple of places: "Folks in Siam do it, / Think of Siamese twins" (verse 1) and "Why ask if shad do it? / Waiter, bring me shad roe" (verse 3) and "Sweet guinea-pigs do it, / Buy a couple and wait" (verse 5).  Word is that people -- among them, Porter himself, for friends -- were making the verses bluer from the moment the words I have were made public.  There's even a report (in a review of the 2004 movie De-Lovely) that the original had the line "Roosters with a doodle and a cock do it" in it; this would have replaced one of the lines in the verse 2 couplet "Penguins in flocks, on the rocks, do it, / Even little cuckoos, in their clocks, do it".  That seems pretty coarse for Porter in public.  (On the other hand there's the couplet from verse 4 "Moths in your rugs do it, / What's the use of moth-balls?")

[Aaron Dinkin now reports that The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter (1984, edited by Robert Kimball), which tries to be both authentic and uncensored, and tries to list variants of lyrics, lacks the doodle/cock line.  So it's unlikely to have been published, though he might have written it.]

Porter has been cleaned up on at least one other occasion.  In "I Get a Kick Out of You" from Anything Goes (1934), he wrote

Some get a kick from cocaine.
I'm sure that if I took even one sniff
That would bore me terrific'ly too.

I hear rumors that the rich, famous, and socially advantaged among us sometimes dabble in cocaine these days as then, but we no longer sing about it playfully, just as decent folk no longer use epithets for the Chinese and Japanese.  Well, not in public or in places where we might get quoted.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 22, 2006 02:09 PM