With Porgy and Bess now on at Regent's Park, Thomas H Green explores the origins of the lullaby that became the ultimate jazz club standard
Porgy and Bess, performed at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's ParkPhoto: Alastair Muir
By Thomas H Green
7:00AM BST 24 Jul 2014
Over the nearly 80 years since it was written, the song Summertime has become perhaps the ultimate jazz club standard. From Ella Fitzgerald to Janis Joplin to Stingand beyond, there have been thousands of covers. The very mention of its title in a social scenario is liable to end up with someone assaying the opening lines, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy/Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high”. When July and August are at their blazing hottest, it makes perfect sense, marinated in a dazed, languorous heat, capturing some ineffable essence of America’s Deep South.
Viewed prosaically, however, it’s less a song than a song snippet, a verse and a chorus repeated twice, taken from a self-styled “folk opera”, Porgy and Bess, whose initial 1935 Broadway run was far from a success. The song’s main creators, the composer George Gershwin and the writer DuBose Heywood, did not even live to see its popularity, as they died in 1937 and 1940, respectively. Yet, somehow, Summertime bucked these odds to become a 20th-century American classic.
Its background is convoluted. DuBose Heywood was a teacher with literary aspirations living in South Carolina. These reached fruition with the 1925 novel Porgy, partly written at the MacDowell Writers and Artists Colony in New Hampshire where Heywood met his wife Dorothy. The pair adapted Porgy into a successful play in 1927, by which time the composer George Gershwin was already showing an interest.
American music was coalescing. Talented musicians such as Gershwin could see the potential in adapting roots black American styles such as jazz, ragtime, and spirituals, assimilating them into European traditions to create something new. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical Showboat led the way in 1927, but Gershwin was experimenting with similar fusions as far back as his Harlem-set, one-act “jazz opera” Blue Monday in 1922.
Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess with Heywood, following the plot of the original novel/play about life in a black community in the Deep South. Summertime retains a writing credit for Gershwin’s older brother Ira but was, in fact, entirely written with Heywood. The mood and musical blueprint came from spirituals such as All My Trials, which had played a similar onstage role in the Heywood’s original play. The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson once recorded a version that melded Summertime with another spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, since this had also been used to close the Heywoods’ original work.
“The most famous song in Porgy and Bess is over within the first five minutes,” explains Timothy Sheader, artistic director of a new production at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. “It’s sung as a lullaby by a young mother to a restless child, serenely setting up the harmony in this community that’s going to be broken by the conflict of the play. Everyone assumes it’s sung by Bess but it’s an incidental character, Clara. Her story later takes a tragic turn, so the song returns as a juxtaposition when the world of innocence has started fading fast.”
It is this undercurrent that makes the song so powerful. It drew such seriously damaged singers as Billie Holliday and Janis Joplin to identify with it and make it their own. Summertime contains a lazy beauty but also a sense of sonic drama that suggests all is not as it should be.
“There are parallels with Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai from Schumann’s Dichterliebe,” says Ben Hall, head of Music at Chichester University, “They are both about a time of year and about impermanence, and both have a clever state of flux between contented and uneasy, between major key and relative minor. There’s a sense of staring through a hazy meadow, not being able to get up off our backs because it’s too comfy, but every now and then our ears read a minor chord. Along with the quasi-poetic words it could mean that the living is easy or it could mean that, no, it isn’t.”
Over the years, a multitude of artists have placed emphasis on different areas of the song’s brief lyrics. Ella Fitzgerald who, among other versions, recorded it as a duet with Louis Armstrong, delivered it as a full orchestral aria, vocally nodding to the original idea of it as a piece for the soprano voice. By contrast, Julie London’s 1965 take sounds like a James Bond seduction theme drunk on both sex and champagne. The biggest hit versions are bizarre rather than definitive, for this is a song that’s sneaked its way to universal consciousness rather than succumbing to ownership by one performer. For instance, a bizarre, yodelling, Hispanic take by rhythm & blues belter Billy Stewart hit big in the States in 1966, and in the UK the song’s highest chart position was courtesy of a gloomy, percussive assault by Fun Boy Three. Its simplicity has also made it an attractive starting point for jazz musicians who major in spectacular improvisation, notably Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
Summertime has, by and large, stood apart from the controversy that’s tended to surround Porgy and Bess. Written by two white men, its attempt to show a positive, progressive vision of a socially deprived African-American neighbourhood became rapidly dated and regarded by many as racist. At the same time, during the Forties and Fifties it was one of the few musical shows where major roles were regularly given to black performers. It was only after a 1976 American revival that there was a serious re-evaluation.
“It was written 30 years after Madam Butterfly and 20 years before Peter Grimes,” says David Shrubsole, musical director and orchestrator of the new Open Air version, “America was defining its own classical style, turning away from European serialism and atonalism. Europe was between two world wars and didn’t want beautiful music; America still did. Gershwin was at the forefront of forging an American sound, and without his African-American opera, Copland, Babbitt and the next generation wouldn’t have been able to do what they did.”
“It’s a little song, more a poem than a novel,” concludes Ben Hall, “but the tonal ambiguity at its heart means that when a performance of Summertime ends you’re instinctively waiting for the next one to start. It hasn’t resolved itself.”
Porgy and Bess is at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre until Aug 23. Tickets and details:openairtheatre.com