Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Miss Otis Regrets by Bryan Ferry/Ethel Waters

Sex, guns, murder, hanging.

No, we’re not talking about a new Eminem song, we’re talking about Cole Porter’s 1934 tragic tale of “Miss Otis Regrets.”

Cole Porter is one of the most important song writers in American history. His works included “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” which became Frank Sinatra’s signature song as well as many others.

Looking back on Porter’s music, so much of it is so ingrained in our culture that his musical invention doesn’t seems impressive. Honestly I didn’t think too much of Porter until I came across “Miss Otis Regrets,” a shocking, haunting and beautiful song.

Cole Porter frames his tragedy from perspective of a butler explaining to a guest a the circumstances in which why Miss Otis cannot lunch. In a proper and collected manner, the butler explains how Miss Otis found that her love had “gone astray.” In her anger she shoots him and is taken to jail. Later a mob comes and hangs her on an oak tree and as she dies she “lifts up her lovely head and cried.” All the time through the butler informs us that “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.”

The first version I heard of this song was by Bryan Ferry, an 1980s singer who became known as part of Roxy Music.

The earliest version of this song I found was Ethel Water’s recording of this song in 1934.

While Ferry stays reserved, Water’s breaks into tears as she sings about Miss Otis’ herself crying. Ferry’s distance from the story, staying cold and emotionless like a stereotypical butler, shocks and haunts us, Water’s emotional reaction pulls directly at our heartstrings. The songs becomes less shocking and more tragic as we are reminded of the sexist double standards against women in crimes of passion at the time this song was written which echo through present day.

“Miss Otis Regrets” is an unforgettable song, nuanced, subtle and beautifully crafted. Music in our past often shows how far we’ve come but sometimes shows us how far we have to go.

1 comment:

  1. There is an earlier version of this song...which is sung by a telephone operator! It was included on a collection of songs on a cassette issued by Reader's Digest. I really need to locate that one.