Summertime, by George Gershwin

Catfish Row. Porgy and Bess setting

Catfish Row entrance/alley

Is it even conceivable that any series of outdoor orchestra or concert band concerts (at least in the US) has never presented someone singing “Summertime”? If a series has lasted more than five or ten years, its audiences have probably heard it sung multiple times—not to mention instrumental arrangements on those or a wide variety of other concerts.

It’s one of George Gershwin’s best-loved works, and certainly his most recorded. Some people regard Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. Too many professional critics dismiss him, looking askance at the fact that he devoted most of his energy to (shudder) popular music.

Porgy and Bess

Gershwin wrote music for many very successful musical comedies. The songs survive, but no one would think of reviving the shows. He wrote only one opera, Porgy and Bess. It basically flopped at first.

One night Gershwin read Dubose Heyward’s best-selling novel, Porgy, hoping for a cure for insomnia. I can’t document whether he got to sleep that night, but he soon asked Heyward to help him turn the book into an opera.

George’s brother Ira wrote the lyrics to most of his songs. George usually wrote the music first and entrusted Ira with the task of writing words to fit. For Porgy and Bess, Heyward wrote most of the lyrics and George Gershwin wrote music to fit them. Ira wrote a few song texts and suggested changes to some of Heyward’s.

George Gershwin visited Heyward in Charleston, South Carolina, the novel’s and opera’s setting. There, Gershwin spent a great deal of time with the black population of the city and of the islands offshore.

He not only soaked up their music and speech patterns, but also participated. Heyward marveled that Gershwin was probably the only white man of the time who could shout, clap, and stomp along with the most exuberant black music-making without missing a beat.

Gershwin’s insistence on an all-black cast made fund-raising difficult. It also contributed to the disappointingly short run of the opera. Further, the songs sounded like they belonged in one of Gershwin’s characteristic comedies, but the actual story was dark and violent. And no one was prepared to hear sung recitative instead of spoken dialog.

The production lost money, but as frequently happens when good music faces initial failure, success followed soon enough.

“Summertime” on stage

“Summertime” is the first vocal piece. It makes an immediate contrast to the energetic blues dance played on piano as an instrumental introduction. Clara, not one of the major characters, sings it as a lullaby to her baby.

Like any of his Tin Pan Alley contemporaries, Gershwin could write chromatic melodies and harmonies when he wanted to, but this song uses only six different notes a natural A minor scale, without the note “F.” The rhythm is likewise simple. The occasional syncopation adds no particular excitement or rhythmic drive.

Bess, the heroin-addicted title character, sings the song later. Where Clara’s lullaby is like the calm before the dramatic storm, Bess sings not only within the swirl of dramatic tension, but while a real hurricane threatens offstage.

“Summertime” off stage

Perhaps because of the very simplicity of the musical material, the song works in a wide variety of tempos and moods. Ella Fitzgerald’s recording sounds comfortable, as if in the coolness of the shade. Billie Holiday sang it as hot urban blues. Mahalia Jackson, who rarely recorded anything but religious music, presented it as a spiritual.

Those three iconic singers represent only what performers whose careers were more or less contemporaneous with the song itself. Janis Joplin, to mention only one later singer, presented an entirely different flavor, as have many other singers.

The variety of instrumental versions covers even more ground. Classical musicians such as violinist Jascha Heifetz have recorded it. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker have given very different accounts of it as a jazz standard as have countless others. Rock, hip hop, and many other styles have also appropriated “Summertime” and made it their own.

Thousands of different recorded versions have been published over the years. Hardly any have become hits, but many have enjoyed more than modest success. Quite a few have become very well known, even if they weren’t among the artists’ best sellers.

I came across a reference to a CD, now apparently out of print, that comprised 20 different versions of “Summertime,” including not only Fitzgerald, Holiday, and Jopin, but also an unreleased Glen Miller recording and a performance by Bill Clinton. What other song has been recorded by so many different artists that it can supply material for an entire CD?

America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley / by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser (New York and London: Routledge, 2006)
Searching for Summertime, BBC Four: A Documentary on Gershwin’s Masterpiece / James Maycock. The Telegraph November 23, 2011.
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by elma2010.

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