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Eighty years ago, George and Ira Gershwin and the author DuBose Heyward premiered their folk opera Porgy and Bess. It was not, initially, a success. But many of its songs swiftly became standards: “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”, “I Loves You, Porgy”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. And above all, possibly the most recorded song ever, “Summertime”.
Many of the opera’s lyrics were by Ira Gershwin: you can hear his love of wordplay when “It Ain’t Necessarily So” rhymes “things that you’re liable” with “to read in the Bible”. But “Summertime” was by DuBose Heyward, on whose novel, Porgy, the opera was based. No wordplay here, no puns or ingenious rhymes. “Summertime”, sings Clara the fisherman’s wife — and any number of singers after her, that last syllable stretched out languorously — “and the livin’ is easy.” But the backing swells like a thunderhead. Your father may be rich and your mother good-looking, but this is a temporary idyll: “One of these mornings/ you’re going to rise up singing/ Then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky . . .”. Summer, in other words, is a transitory premonition of an eternal heaven.
This tension between a hard life on earth and rewards in the hereafter is a trope that starts with the spiritual — which “Summertime”, in formal terms, is — but in other songs is rejected. In “Ol’ Man River” the chorus are “tired of livin’/ but scared of dyin’”; for Sam Cooke, in 1964’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/ ’Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.” In “Summertime”, hedonism and eschatology are in perfect equipoise.
Gershwin insisted that Porgy and Bess should be performed by a black cast — which posed some problems for the New York debut when he turned down Al Jolson, and failed to land Paul Robeson. The all-black cast can still carry immense symbolic power, as in 1997 at the State Theatre in Pretoria, when a mix of South African and American singers brought the opera to the heart of the Afrikaner establishment.
The song, however, has long since broken free from the opera. There have been instrumentals: recordings by Sidney Bechet on clarinet, in 1938, and Miles Davis on trumpet, 20 years later, are as well-known as any of the sung versions. There have been untold numbers of jazz renditions, among which Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald stand out. There have been rock interpretations: Janis Joplin’s 1968 recording starts out baroque and ends up belting the blues; The Doors interpolated “Summertime” into live versions of “Light My Fire”.
On any portmanteau re-recording of Gershwin’s songs, “Summertime” is the prize. Peter Gabriel — who rarely records cover versions — contributed a version in 1994. It opens with an extended harmonica voluntary from Larry Adler, and then Gabriel sings more in weary resignation than sunstruck languor. Gabriel’s summer sounds as arduous as the trudged roads of his own “Don’t Give Up”.
On a charity compilation a few years later, the song went to the acceptable face of trip-hop, the band Morcheeba. The music shimmers in the heat. The veteran American flautist Hubert Laws coils tendrils of flute around the melody, while Skye Edwards sings less as if trying to soothe a baby to sleep than as if she herself has only just awoken, and is stretching into a new day. Slyly, for the last reprise, she switches which parent is rich and which good-looking.
Perhaps the song’s popularity in its home country recognises the fragility of the American summer. In a country where even today the average annual vacation entitlement is three weeks, and only a quarter of workers take their full entitlement (one in seven takes no holiday at all), the idea of the livin’ being easy sounds like a fantasy. Those rich daddies come at a high price.
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song