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Cole Porter Scores An Interracial Couple's Highs And Lows

Aug 30, 2012
Originally published on August 30, 2012 6:09 pm

As summer winds down, All Things Considered is winding down its series "Mom and Dad's Record Collection."

For the past few months, the show has asked listeners to tell their stories about a particular piece of music they associate with their parents. Listener Melanie Cowart of San Antonio, Texas, wrote in to explain how Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" — a song that's been interpreted by Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald and many others — became a running soundtrack for her parents' relationship.

"My father was African-American; my mother was white," Cowart tells NPR's Melissa Block. "They met in 1929, at a time when that type of a relationship was not something that was acceptable in society. In fact, in many states, including in Missouri where they met, it was against the law. But they fell in love and formed a very strong bond."

Cowart says her parents loved to hear "Begin the Beguine" when they went out dancing and would always have it playing at their backyard barbecues in the summer. Their social gatherings, however, were often disrupted by racial tension.

"My mom talked about how sometimes, when they were out with their friends and a police car might come up alongside their car, she would have to hide in the backseat and they would all pile their coats on top of her so that she wasn't seen," Cowart says.

Cowart says segregationist sentiment was an ongoing source of pressure in her parents' lives and manifested in one particularly ugly incident.

"[My mother] was arrested one time when she was on her way home from work, coming into the African-American community, and the police wanted to know what she was doing there," she says. "They took her down to the police station and made her sit there, and verbally assaulted her until someone came and got her and took her home."

"Begin the Beguine," Cowart says, is a fitting symbol for her parents' romance, given all they went through to be with one another.

"It may be about lost love, but I think it's also about a love that is meant to stay strong," she says. "It's a song that can carry over to any period of time, but it really reminds you of that period of time when they got together."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As the summer winds down, we are winding down our series, Mom and Dad's Record Collection. We've asked listeners to tell us their stories about a particular piece of music they associate with their parents and why. And that prompted Melanie Cowart of San Antonio, Texas to get in touch with us. She joins me now with her story. Melanie, welcome to the program.

MELANIE COWART: Thank you, Melissa. It's good to be here.

BLOCK: And tell us about the song that came to your mind when you heard us talking about this series.

COWART: Yeah, well, the song that came to my mind was Cole Porter's, "Begin the Beguine." I heard my parents play it a lot when I was much, much younger and they considered it their song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGIN THE BEGUINE")

BLOCK: So, Melanie, what images or memories are coming to mind as you hear this song?

COWART: Oh, my parents loved to have people at our house, so, especially in the summertime we would have lots of friends over in the backyard. And my dad would barbecue and they would play music and they would dance. And this is one of the songs that I remember them playing and dancing to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGIN THE BEGUINE")

BLOCK: This was in St. Louis.

COWART: Yes, that's correct.

BLOCK: And tell me more about your parents.

COWART: My father was African-American, my mother was white. They met in 1929, at a time when that type of a relationship was not something that was acceptable in society. In fact, in many states, including Missouri, where they met, it was against the law. But they fell in love and formed a very strong bond. And when they were dating, they would go to nightclubs and they would have a good time, and they just liked to dance and they liked this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: But a really difficult time I would think, too, given the climate back then for an interracial couple.

COWART: Well, that's true. My mom talked about how sometimes when they were out with their friends and a police car might come up alongside of their car, she would have to hide in the backseat and they would all pile their coats on top of her so that she wasn't seen.

BLOCK: And were their friends both white and African-American? Or was it mostly one or the other?

COWART: No. Unlike today, it was much more comfortable for my parents to live in the African-American community. You might be familiar with the term passing, where they talk about African-Americans who pass for white. Well, my mother's friends used to say that she was the only white person that they knew that was passing for African-American, because she really immersed herself in the African-American community.

BLOCK: Did she talk to you much over the years about what that was like for her?

COWART: Well, she did. My mother - she felt embarrassed by the fact that there was racial strife in the world. She was arrested one time when she was on her way home from work, coming into the African-American community, and the police wanted to know what she was doing there. And they took her down to the police station and made her sit there and verbally assaulted her until someone came and got her and took her home.

BLOCK: What did you think when she told you that?

COWART: I was shocked. My mother was tiny, 5-foot-two, unlike my dad who was six-foot-five. And I couldn't imagine her - she was very proper, and I just couldn't imagine anybody taking her to the police station for any reason. But my parents were never silent about racial differences. And my parents just made clear that we needed to be strong and able to excel in anything that we put our mind to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGIN THE BEGUINE")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) When they begin the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender. It brings back a night of tropical splendor. It brings back a memory evergreen.

BLOCK: You know, I was thinking about this because the song is all about remembering a lost love, you know, something that escapes. And with your parents, it was anything but that, right? They had each other.

COWART: That's very true. It may be about lost love, but I think it's also about a love that is meant to stay strong. And it's a song that can carry over to any period of time, but it really reminds you of that period of time when they got together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEGIN THE BEGUINE")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) When they begin the beguine.

BLOCK: So, Melanie, thanks so much for talking to us about your memories of your parents and "Begin the Beguine."

COWART: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure being here.

BLOCK: That's listener, Melanie Cowart, for our series, Mom and Dad's Record Collection. We're listening to Ella Fitzgerald from a recording made in 1956. We also heard a 1938 recording by Artie Shaw. If you want to find all the interviews from our series, you can go to NPRmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Never do find. What moment...

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.