PART SIX The Bird That Caged Herself

Summertime reversed.bmp
It seems there must be some monsters in any “Summertime” discussion; they are unavoidable. There are so many masks in the creation, production and interpretation of this lullaby based in lost racial caricature that there will always be distortions to amuse, distract, and not infrequently offend someone. Most disturbing versions in my personal survey are the “Summertime” recordings of Janis Joplin. .
Since 1968-69 time hasn’t been kind to Ms. Joplin, particularly with her two recordings of “Summertime”. The lens of fifty years has magnified their flaws and diminished their contextual meaning. That doesn’t mean that they are somehow dishonest, but rather that like many recordings from that period of experimentation and excess, they have difficulty escaping being classified only as artifacts. It requires effort to review these recordings. In spite of the fond memories they contain for me personally, if I weren’t writing this essay I don’t think I would choose to listen to them, as opposed to others I’ve already discussed.

In 1968, when I was seventeen, I saw Ms. Joplin perform with Big Brother and the Holding Company in a half filled Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. They were touring in support of “Cheap Thrills”, the album containing “Summertime”. Apart from seeing “The Executioners” at a school dance, I’d never seen a rock and roll act in person. Even today I recall her performance as loud, hypnotic and vaguely desperate. We met her on stage briefly afterwards and she put a string of beads around the neck of my friend Anne. She seemed small, alone and kind. I felt oddly pleased that she had an acne eruption. Janis Joplin represented any shunned teenager’s fantasy to become suddenly charismatic, discovered and recognized as the voice their generation’s rebellion. In 1968 that was Ms. Joplin’s actual reality.

She was both fortunate and fatally inopportune to inhabit a musical era that prized ecstatic improvisation over formal training. That period of popular music was defined by a synergistic combination of burgeoning Boomer/Hippie audiences, the expansion of rock and roll from an intimate club acts to commercialized stadium productions, and the widespread availability and near mandatory use of all manner of dangerous drugs. The Dionysian mood of the times produced, idolized and devoured dozens of artists like Janis Joplin. Even while she was alive she was an artist whose recordings were primarily memorabilia of her performances. What was fundamental to her career was the myth of overpowering genius, that she had magically escaped a restrictive world (and high school in 1960s Port Arthur, Texas was undoubtedly constraining) and been daemonically remade into some kind of elemental voice singing outside the limitations of ordinary lives. It wasn’t talent; it was the spectacle of inspiration crowds came to witness. The promise of her show was hip fun, catharsis and relatively safe proximity to unfettered rebellion.

What she presented to me that night in Cleveland was far removed from any record she produced in her career. It was similar to the difference between seeing a tightrope walker in a circus tent, or on television; the value diminishes in relation to the immediate proximity of disaster. Technically she was untrained, and like many of the Blues and Rhythm & Blues singers she emulated, she prematurely ruined her instrument by the demands of over-performance. However “Summertime” was recorded in 1968 and Ms. Joplin largely directed the production of the entire “Cheap Thrills” recording, and at twenty-five, was in her best form. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the recording is what she intended. Films of her in the studio during those recording sessions reveal her to be intelligent, determined and a skillful manager of the people and the task and before her.

She released a live version from her performance at the Woodstock Music Festival and included “Summertime” as a staple of her concerts. Her interpretation was a rock and roll version of blues. Ms. Joplin’s emotive rock and roll vocals were genuine in her ability to integrate traditional African American musical forms into the eidetic shapes of the improvisations of acid rock. On the other hand, Big Brother and the Holding Company were (and remained) a terribly inadequate backup band. Even in a time when no guitar solo was too shapeless, too distorted, or was required to adhere to any tempo, they struggled. I charitably assume it was drugs in excess, or the demands of maintaining the psychedelic blues music style.

Blues was a favored as a form because it was fundamentally simple to play, but allowed for improvisation and personalization. Blues also contained an emotional authority that rock and roll didn’t; you believed Robert Johnson, you pretended to believe Chuck Berry. Generally white musicians in the sixties employed a musical style that tended to imitate and re-inhabit existing blues forms with combinations of technical virtuosity, improvisation and emotional excess in a quest for a type of “authenticity” that overcame the limitations of not being “black”. It was part of the same long, angry conversation that extended from Stephen Foster, minstrelsy and colored “Porgy and Bess” from its initial productions through today. In the late 1960’s there were particularly virulent debates about the qualities and degree of “blackness” in popular music and art. Many African American artists like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), took realistic offense at the historic exploitation of “black music” by “white” artists. In the late sixties and early seventies, that conversation, like much of the heated rhetoric of those days,became virulent, accusatory and simultaneously productive and counter-productive.

In the less than ten years since the last surge of recordings of “Summertime”, Louis Armstrong was abused for Uncle Tom-ism, John Coltrane was dead and cannonizied, and the Protean Miles Davis was abandoning post-bop jazz quartets for free form funk ensembles. There was deserved criticism for groups and white musicians who even refused to acknowledge their musical sources. And there was the de facto financial re-segregation of traditional rhythm and blues by British musicians and blue eyed soul singers. Historical accuracy and financial responsibility notwithstanding, that debate was and continues to be genuine in that it struggles with, privilege, integration and identity. Janis Joplin’s interpretation of “Summertime” speaks to those issues although somewhat obliquely.

In 1968 “Summertime” appeared on “Cheap Thrills” which was the Billboard number one album for eight weeks, and sold over a million copies in its first month of release. The album cover featured illustrations by the underground comic artist, Art Crumb, who depicted the singer of “Summertime” in an exaggerated racial caricature of a kerchief wearing ‘mammy’ holding a white baby. It was (and is) a disturbing reference. The only way the image could have been more offensive would for it to have been to be larger. Originally it was intended to be the back liner notes, but Ms. Joplin lobbied to have it become the cover. The iconoclastic Mr. Crumb aside, there is a solipsistic entitlement that pervades this recording. From this vantage nearly fifty years later I could charitably call this expression adolescent, new found powers to shock or contest authority. Adolescent rebellion acting out. Charitably it speaks of the naiveté, rebellion and poor judgment of intoxicated youth. It’s same formula that continues to produce unfortunate wardrobe choices, regrettable sexting, sad tattoos, vandalism, and tens of thousands of car wrecks. It’s that initial flush of liberty that seems invigorating, irresponsible, and addictive.

But any parent can tell you adolescent acting out isn’t without consequences for someone. Willie Mae ”Big Mama” Thornton ten years previously had her R&B hit “Hound Dog” re-recorded by the young, white, Elvis Presley. Ten years later had her hit song, ”Ball & Chain”, re-recorded by the young, white, Janis Joplin. Both of the re-recordings were so successful that they transformed white trash singers into single name identities, Elvis and Janis. Ms. Thornton wrote “Ball &Chain”, but received no royalty payments, only the snide credit buried in the illustration of the “Cheap Thrills” album cover. Although Ms. Thornton wasn’t alone as an African-American musician in being cheated out of publishing rights and royalties by predatory record deals, it must have been bitter to have it happen on such a scale twice. It wasn’t just the songs, Ms. Thornton had her act appropriated as if it were public property, translated into a “whitened” version delivered by over sexualized delinquents, and had seen both thieves rewarded with unimagined sums of money and international fame. However she did outlive them both.

Artistic rebellion, zeitgeist, countercultural movements, and frozen adolescence aside, Ms. Joplin was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She died of a heroin overdose in October of 1970. Her entire career was a little less than five years long. Without judging her life and personal struggles, it’s difficult to overlook the influences of the harsh realities of that lifestyle on her music.

It would also be unfair to characterize Ms. Joplin as “trapped in adolescence” without mentioning that there were seventy-six million other people approximately her age who owned a pair of bell bottomed pants. The entire country was quite literally trapped in adolescence. It was an enormous audience and market for music and fashion, but it was also a collective mirror for the unmodulated hormones, de rigueur creativity, and rebelliousness that marked both that period of life and those moments in time. For a brief time, Ms. Joplin was merely first citizen among millions of women with long frazzled hair, flowing blouses and a tangle of necklaces. At the same time in the background of every dinner conversation was a war drafting and sending home thousands of casualties, riots and assassinations.

Listening to the “Cheap Thrills” rendition of “Summertime” it’s difficult for me to imagine to whom this song is directed. There is little of a lullaby sounding in this arrangement, unless it is it is the sound of a trapped woman singing to try to soothe her inner child. (Not an altogether inaccurate definition of rock and roll as an art form.) There’s no summer and no musical allusions to the Catfish Row of “Porgy and Bess”. Sam Andrew III is credited for having arranged the guitar figures that interpret the song. He employs the stylistic minor key noodling raga that was the beginning of many pop songs from that period and then extends it into searching motif. Ultimately it finds Ms. Joplin’s voice imposing the lyric and melody over two guitar parts that ramble around in distortion and distress until converging at a sonic mutual climax, and then trundle off again in what appears to a cyclical repetition,It was a formula used by hundreds of bands forconcert and extended versions of songs. Apart from tribute bands, this “Summertime” doesn’t strike me as an interpretation that might want to be repeated. However Ms. Joplin’s vocalizing comes across as brutally intimate, and carries the burden through the nebulous guitars, and that amalgam is, in its way, surprisingly honest and beautiful.

What Ms. Joplin required herself to do spiritually and physically to produce those recordings was authentic art in spite of my reservations of taste, racial sensitivity, or the ethics of its cost. The “Cheap Thrills” recording nods faintly to an imagined world of “Porgy and Bess” (Mr. Crumb had seen to that) but primarily it re-imagines the song as a cathartic expression of privileged intimacy with the music of dark summer spirits. The voice of Janis Joplin tears at itself to imitate a séance with the legendary curses, haunts, and superstitions that populate the shadows of classic blues. The seemingly intoxicated guitars might describe the sonic landscape of the Catfish Row Ms. Joplin knew. A street scene also replete with drug dealers, bullies, shade tree picnics, con games, untrustworthy friends and philanderers. Onto that cheap thrill surface she projects her inner doubts and losses with no more protection than a string of beads. She inhabits both the memory of the 1935 song and her Orphic need to sing. In her versions of “Summertime” there is a sense of fracture, of tumbling, and surrounding menace. She creates the appearance of being possessed by a voice that the singer can neither stop, nor escape until the song is over.

The qualities we expect from a performer are ones that the audience generally prefers to have concealed. We don’t care to view the practice required to develop those exact notes subtly inflected or extended, we just expect the anticipated sonic image each night in Monterrey, Woodstock, or Cleveland. That kind of consistent vocal presence comes through a lifetime of training and tedious hours of discipline that are generally known only to professional musicians and their families. That training also develops the ability to put on and take off the mask of performance. Ms. Joplin had none of that and what audiences demanded of Ms. Joplin was different and more.

In an age of celebrated for care-free life style, Janis Joplin was expected to suffer, ritually and gracelessly. Her public suffering relieved part of the collective guilt of her intoxicated generation by her willing exhibitions of pain. Within that dynamic the cultura land racial stylistic notions of “authenticity” or “real” become more tragic. That self- immolation comes through in the 1969 live recording of “Summertime” at Woodstock. She is abandoned in the lyrics to trance-like syllabic stammering, a different dialect from the one Abbie Lincoln sang in 1935. Neither is it the world weary complaint of Bessie Smith, or the sly wisdom of Willie Mae Thornton. It was toxic suffering, not blues. Ms. Joplin’s “Summertime” had no tight orchestrated revue, or slick showmanship. Her audience, her addiction, wanted to experience how close she would come to dying. Nina Simone (who also recorded “Summertime”) discussing Janis Joplin remarked bitterly “…she worked so hard, and she sang for corpses.” Those corpses were a young, white, stoned, barely conscious mob screaming and laughing. Her addiction was to same people she could never leave in Port Arthur. They came to watch the show, for the festival, it was summertime.


PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.


Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:  Clara Rockmore, Santo & Johnny, The Ventures, Herbie Mann, Charlie Parker, Ricky Nelson, Billy Preston, Eumir Deodato, The Zombies, Lloyd Clarke, Johnny G Watson, Friends of Dean Martinez, The Walker Brothers, Booker T & the MGs, Lawrence Welk, and Duke Ellington.


I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. .

PART THREE Revisions and Reclamations

American movies have a knack for homogenizing issues into forms you can watch while you eat Goobers. “Porgy and Bess” didn’t have that kind of fortune. It was the last film produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The set and costumes were burned on the first day of rehearsals, rumors circulated that it was arson. Midway through production Otto Preminger took over as director and there was a lawsuit filed by the Director’s Guild. Harry Belafonte refused the role of Porgy, he was replaced by Sidney Poitier and the role was sung by Robert McFerrin. Sammy Davis Jr., the only performer who actually wanted to be in this production, played Sportin’Life . This only after Frank Sinatra pressured Goldwyn to cast him in spite of rumored racial slurs from the Gershwin family. Ultimately his vocals were replaced by Cab Calloway due to a recording contract dispute. The completed film has remained in litigation between factions of the Gershwin Estate and MGM who both continue contesting ownership rights. There hasn’t been a redeeming review of the film and the soundtrack was removed from distribution; that either was completed was a fruitless miracle. In many ways it typified the changing subtext of “Summertime”.

In anticipation of the film’s release and publicity several musicians produced interpretations of “Porgy & Bess”.


Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald 1957:
In 1957 Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald produced a critically celebrated jazz version of selections from “Porgy and Bess”. Although it received a Grammy in 2001 to mark its historic significance, it seems a translation of a strange “as if “Summertime. It begins with the horn that Billie Holiday’s arrangement alluded to twenty years earlier, Louis Armstrong Hot Five. But here its tone is far from the insouciant genius of Storyville. In this recording he seems to be merely playing notes, more like an audition than an interpretation. The agile voice of Ms. Fitzgerald, sounds more like an ersatz Dinah Shore than Bess, and both Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald seem to casually walk away from the tune and lyrics. Ultimately they drift into scat vamps, mostly as decorations on no theme except pointless cheerfulness. It seems as removed from interpreting the possibilities of “Summertime” as television in 1957 was from interpreting life. It has replaced one set of racial stereotypes for a newer, emptier one.(Ten years later in 1968 Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Summertime” again with the Tee Carson trio. . She seems to have reconsidered and produced a spare, more personal, emotionally felt rendering.) In spite of its apparent carelessness, this version has moved its interpretation of the original song into the milieu of popular culture.


That both artists publicly chose to make it seem nonchalant and workmanlike should not be undervalued. Racial segregation was an unresolved entity in America. That year Federal Troops were required to quell riots in Little Rock in an attempt to stop African-American students from entering high schools. In 41 states inter-racial marriage was illegal. Racial violence was organized and genuine. Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald were able to provide a coded message with the kind of disingenuousness people used to working and appearing cheerful may have understood. In my interpretation this was “Summertime” for showing up, doing the job, and getting paid. In 1958 my father, and millions of other Americans, had settled into jobs that featured long, boring shifts, managers in short sleeve white shirts, Labor Day off, and decades of cheerless smiles. They could have understood the constriction, perhaps appreciated the rebellion in performing a task correctly with complete artificiality and unspoken anger.


Less than a year after Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1958, “Summertime” was also interpreted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album “Porgy and Bess”: .


In the Miles Davis interpretation old stereotypes were scraped away and its musical dialect was abandoned. The story remains, although retold from a different point of view. Miles Davis and Gil Evans reinvented “Porgy and Bess” from the inside out as “cool”.


In 1924 DuBose Heyward published a volume of poetry Jazbo Brown and Selected Poems. Jazbo is an amalgam figure based on itinerant Delta Bluesmen legends. He is the character playing a slow blues as the curtain rises on “Porgy and Bess” and his playing morphs into “Summertime”. In the Davis/Evans version the musical arrangement is reduced to echoing four bar phrase that resembles twelve bar blues. However, where Mr. Armstrong’s horn searched for a safe purchase, Mr. Davis examines the same melody as his possession.
He uses muted language as a code that sings in the double language of race, but not for protection, but celebratory display. Miles Davis took the chords, changes and melodies and voiced them into a sophisticated and aesthetically intellectual production.


In some sense he re-gifted “Porgy and Bess” to its African American community. Gone are what Duke Elington referred to as “troubling Negroisms”, no embarrassing sentimentality for segregation, no dropped -ings, apostophied elisions, no fumbling over Mammy/ Mama/ Mother. His interpretation reverses the setting and sense, where once “Porgy and Bess” was an awkward and pathos ridden opera of condescension to the lives of the ‘colored’, now “Summertime” is cool, hip, the object of envy, not pity. Neither does this interpretation dismiss the intimacy to drugs, pimps, prostitution and the underworld. Where the Armstrong/Fitzgerald version appeared audience friendly and nonchalant, the Davis/Evans version is intensely self-aware, disengaged and sophisticated.


If Mahalia Jackson’s spiritual lesson of racism was “in this world anything can be taken”, Mr. Davis understood that message as a secular lesson; he found himself capable of taking anything as well. Porgy has gone from walking on his knees to wearing Italian loafers. The muted notes imply that in his wry horn it can be transformed into the kind of cool Gershwin couldn’t imagine existed. It has transformed Catfish Row from a world white people believed they owned into a world they’re afraid they wouldn’t be hip enough to enter.


John Coltrane 1961:


If Miles Davis “Summertime” was change by urban renewal, this is metamorphosis. The classic 1961 John Coltrane Quartet brought the same musical competence that von Karajan’s orchestra employed, but employed their virtuosity to repurpose “Summertime” into a vehicle of reflection and refraction. In this arrangement “Summertime” isn’t a lullaby about easy living in the big house. It becomes a series of extrapolations on the prepositional life near a house. Each improvisation comes close enough to acknowledge fragments of the familiar buried in a different conversations. It removes the languid time signatures, removes the fictive structures of the ionic scale and replaces them with modal short stories.


With John Coltrane’s interpretation the listener must imagine “Summertime” as jazz musicians do. It’s not a dialect, libretto or chord progression they’re changing, but the expectation of music.
The listener is the one who must generate the standard “Summertime” and in doing so the performed music becomes more apt, intimate and beautiful. The quartet assumes the person listening is participating at the core of the song. Try this experiment, Google lyrics for “Summertime”, start the John Coltrane recording and silently sing along. The unheard song you are singing becomes a foundation, while the sounded music of the quartet counterpoints the interior voicing. Once you understand that the actual “Summertime” requires you to participate, this interpretation comes clearer. The quartet follows a subliminal “Summertime” that acts as a conductor might. Like that conductor you must pay strict attention not only to the produced music, but also the music you must hear internally to bring about the next phrase.


By the time of this recording listeners had heard “Summertime” enough that it was in the bones of American culture.  In 1961 “Summertime” was presented not for the drowsy baby doing nothing but being lulled by tones, but an energetic prophetic ear. It is interpreted for someone who has the awareness and energy to go through the imaginary fourth wall. Punctuated by Elvin Jones percussion and McCoy Tyner’s left hand chording “Summertime” strides along extrapolating phrases, but it refuses to resolve them other than musically. There is no significant attempt to interpret the underlying fiction of “Porgy and Bess”.
At some moments Mr. Coltrane’s tone hearkens back to the Sidney Bechet recording in its open, realized virtuosity, but doesn’t attempt a closer connection with the spirit of the opera, since by 1961, it couldn’t be the same story. Suspension of disbelief was no longer possible, the tale of Porgy, the legless beggar and Bess, the beguiled victim, was symbolically nearly impossible to interpret without the overlay of race becoming more powerful than the dynamics of the rise and fall of any part of the libretto.

Let Porgy stand for the rising sense of power of African Americans, let Bess be white America. It could be true, but wouldn’t matter. Any musical expression would be juxtaposed next to Strom Thurman’s 24 hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate against the Civil Rights Act, or Governor Fabus, or Sheriff Bull Connor. In spite of the genius of Miles Davis revision just three years earlier, “Porgy and Bess” was a diminished language for discussing race.


“Summertime” had evolved into a musical prompt about describing intimacy and the tentative identity of relationships.
What John Coltrane’s interpretation of “Summertime” understood, opened, and expressed was essential to the American race dialog. The dialog Mr. Coltrane and the Quartet engage in is nearly pure music in a baroque sensibility, it’s variations on a given theme. Although it’s not without emotion, it’s largely without depiction. It’s an inner dialog focused on an internal mathematics. In an ironic sense it returned “Porgy and Bess” to the operatic warehouse where it could languish in obscure respectability.



PART TWO  “Summertime”  Without Gershwin

The 1940 original cast recording was directed by Alexander Smallens and recorded during the period “Porgy and Bess” was in flux.


Gershwin died in 1937.  “Porgy and Bess” closed after 142 performances in 1935, then wandered in sporadic repertoire until it was revived in 1940, the year of DuBose Heyward’s death. This recording is sung by Anne Brown who did not sing in the production, but was chosen for the recording. It’s clean, professional and pretty, but speaks more to New York than South Carolina. By this time of his death Gershwin was widely discussed as a significant composer. In Paris he had met, Poulenc, Ravel, Weil, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. His correspondence shows he was interested in Virgil Thompson, Alban Berg, Charles Ives, Edgar Varese, and Aaron Copland.  He had subscribed to and read Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly. He studied musical notation with Arthur Schillinger. When he died, Gershwin was an active, ambitious intellectual; however these posthumous bona fides sometimes bring an artifice of austerity that this version of “Summertime” struggles to carry.

The sonic arrangement of the Decca 78rpm record emphasizes the orchestration and diminishes the tonal flexiblity of the voice compared to the 1935 Gershwin trial recording. The 1940 version is under the direction of Alexander Smallens, who had been Gershwin’s personal choice since he heard him direct “Four Saints in Three Acts” by Virgil Thompson. Based on their relationship and Smallens long dedication to performing the work, I assume that this arrangement and the choice of Ms. Brown in large measure reflect his sense of the musical intentions of George Gershwin, an opera in the European tradition depicting American ambitions.

Interestingly, in the 1940 revival, the part of Bess was performed by Julliard trained, Metropolitan Opera soprano, Leontyne Price. Later she recorded a version of “Summertime” in Germany under the baton of Herbert Von Karajan in 1960 at the Fledermaus Gala of Prince Orlofsky. I would establish it as a gold standard in terms of following the score with absolute obedience. If any recording could achieve a flawless, note for note rendition, this would be as close as possible. Ms. Price was both in full voice and intimate with performing the song. Herbert von Karan, as the premier 20th Century conductor of Beethoven, was a legendary musical tyrant. It seems a marriage made for fidelity.


This rendition has some sense of ethereal weather, but expresses little feeling of belief. In spite of the complete control of the score, a legendary orchestra and Ms. Price’s astonishing voice, strangely it doesn’t reflect summer or a sleeping baby. It seems to have no geographical context. Listening to it, it could as easily be a woman imprisoned in a Schwartz Walden castle as Catfish Row. Being correct is only so valuable. Taking the music to its European limit didn’t seem to have produced a finer form of expression.

That same year Mahalia Jackson also recorded an interpretation of “Summertime” that seems incendiary:


Here is a hearkening to the original voice, song and fundamental sentiment that attracted Gershwin, one that Billie Holiday had immediately understood. This voice understands the nuances of the gospel spirituals. It holds what is precious, closer. The naked piano has moved the music to near complete interiority. The child becomes the sense of self in a wretched world. Ms. Jackson seamlessly moves into “Motherless Child” in an organic reflection of the chord progression, but also as a protest. Not that Gershwin has appropriated the tune, but a song that has its roots much deeper than Tin Pan Alley. In “Motherless Child” it’s not “nothing can harm you”, but nothing can rescue you. The person who sings this “Summertime” imbues it with the contradiction that a rich daddy and good looking mama are no genuine protection from harm. Everything can be taken by this world; loss is the foundation of any spiritual before the first hands clap.

IMG_20140308_141334025 Summertime


It is, as some say on the Gulf Coast, “hotting up”. Not quite change your shirt twice a day hot, but already stay in the shade hot. Among other things hot weather is good for ripening tomatoes, iced coffee and arguments over small things. My college roommate and I have been arguing out the fine points of topics like Victorian adversaries for decades. Over time we’ve become familiar with one another’s tastes, beliefs and exaggerations. Not long ago, quite unexpectedly he proclaimed an affection for Julie Andrews, Broadway musicals, professionally trained voices and proscribed all else to the exile of “caterwauling”. Late in ones’ life I expect a certain amount religious retrenchment, dietary conversions, even divorces, but a Pauline conversion to musical theater surprised me. Broadway repertoire has charms, but deleting the astonishing range of 20th Century recordings we had shared for years set me wondering.


In my life I’ve enjoyed friends who could sing long selections of musicals a cappella, who were dogmatic collectors of recordings of chanteuses, and others who had framed “Playbills” on their walls. I admire obsession. I get it, at the same time I confess too much of my childhood was tortured by overexposure to “The Sound of Music”. Julie Andrews did nothing culpable: she remains Maria Rainer. Her soprano was lovely and expressive; whatever problems I have with the singing are mine. So I did find myself taking less exception to the canonization of Broadway, but more the loss of so much music to the lesser realm of caterwaul.


To my ear, the rigid tonal structures of western music, while pleasing, seem an artifact of a lost age I often appreciate as a tourist. It requires little from me but a credit card, suspension of disbelief and a cultural predisposition to sit still for three acts. That’s not derogatory; it’s in the nature of Western art forms. “The Sound of Music” is entertaining. It pits romance and the diatonic scale against Nazis and monastic vows. While reinterpreting history is one of the basic mythic devices of western theater, the more complex differentiation isn’t about historical melodrama and artistic interpretation, but between attractive and beautiful. Attractive has a broader range, or conversely beautiful has a deeper, narrower range. Both are noble human endeavors. What is easy or pretty draws us away from the unpleasantness of our lives; what is demanding and transformative takes us back to something that may be less pleasing, but more a more demanding useful truth.


I have lived in a fortuitously peculiar period. The sonic variety of our collective musical mind has been infected by recordings. People like me, born in the 1950s, have heard more different types of music than perhaps any other generation before us. We have heard it and responded to it, but been physically present for proportionally very few actual performances. Radios, records, CDs, tapes, television, movies, MTV, iPods, download and YouTube provide a constantly changing kaleidoscopic soundscape possessing both novelty and historical delicacy. As with most things, we know more than we have experienced. The Nazis came and went before I was born. Race, jazz, poverty and class struggle have remained part of the conversation of my lifetime; I’d like to consider “Summertime” from America’s first major opera “Porgy and Bess” and the notion of expressive caterwauling.
Like the performance of most operas, a performance of “Porgy and Bess remains precious. More people have seen Lady Gaga perform “Monster Ball” in its two years of touring than the combined audiences for every performance of “Porgy and Bess”. “Porgy and Bess” is another of America’s awkward masterpieces. It has an unaccountably erratic history of productions, enjoying limited runs in 1935, 1942, 1952 and notably 1976 as a revival by Houston Grand Opera. The 1959 film version was a production melodrama nearly more dramatic than the script. It too is assumed to be well known, but also seldom seen. The film was never given wide theatrical release and was shown only once on network television in 1967. Like many, I claim to having seen it and recall scenes and songs, including “Summertime”.


Most operas exist in the repertoire of storage. They are an antithesis of ‘popular’ music, to most people there are musical fragments or costumes that are almost recognizable. Mel Blanc may probably be the most recognized voice of the Valkyrie for the overwhelming majority of Americans. By nature opera is caricature; in America opera is an intellectual cartoon. It represents pure music with extensively trained performers and a demand for educated attention that is expensive in many ways audiences are not often willing to purchase. Nonetheless Americans assume operas will exist whether or not they like them, understand them, or attend their performances. As an opera George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has struggled to find an audience identity outside of its composer’s roots in Tin Pan Alley, the Jazz Age and Broadway shows.


George Gershwin published his first hit song at seventeen. He had some classical piano lessons and positive experiences in that realm, but found his immediate future and fortune in popular music. He wrote Al Jolson’s black face signature “Sewanee” in 1917. He wrote songs for theatrical productions that were primarily musical reviews, song and dance, chorus, comics and hits. He understood his audience, the task of the song, and wrote to its commercial potential. The term “selling a song” came from this Tin Pan Alley period.


The piano industry reached its peak in the 1920s then declined with the Great Depression. Until the crash, pianos were the most common ‘must have’ item for every household, school and public business. Even today, a hundred years later, that prevalence of pianos remains part of our cultural memory. We aren’t surprised if a piano player appears in Western movie, in fact they’re cliché. Nor does it strain our imaginations when the Little Rascals rescue someone from piano practice to play football, when Mickey Rooney sits down to write the show to put on, or in the background music for tenement scene, dive bars, or cocktail parties comes as the trebly sound of a nearby piano player. We not surprised to find a piano anywhere. Legendarily in the 1920’s there were so many composers sitting at pianos picking out so many different songs at the same time on West 28th Street that it sounded like beating tin pans as opposed to music, Tin Pan Alley. Pianos and sheet music were a profitable industry, those without a trainable daughter or son purchased player pianos. Gershwin both wrote songs families could sing around a piano and arranged songs for piano rolls. He was extraordinarily successful at it.


Like all people of ambition he aspired to something more without the knowledge of what shape that would take. Like many from immigrant families, he recognized it would demand acculturation, invention and energy. He flourished with the jazz age, studied in Paris, and saw his “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” performed at Carnegie Hall. The music he composed for “Porgy and Bess” was in some aspects the culmination of his successes. It possessed sweeping themes and singable tunes. Gershwin’s seasonal “Summertime” was composed for “Porgy and Bess”.


“Summertime” was originally set to a poem by DuBose Heyward from the novel Porgy by Mr. Heyward.” “Porgy and Bess” was initially described by George Gershwin as a “folk opera”, that is, inspired by common songs and rhythms and interpreted in classical musical form. No different from works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, or Aaron Copeland all contemporaries of Gershwin. It’s generally assumed “Porgy and Bess” drew melodies from spirituals and other tunes Gershwin heard traveling in the South. In preparing the music he made an extended visit to a North Carolina barrier island. (There is an alternative interpretation asserting that “Summertime” is based on Yiddish and Ukrainian lullaby melodies.) The style of symphonic composing that was Gershwin’s forte was a style of musical interpretation and invention with a long history in Western classical music dating from Bach and certainly Beethoven. It was, as Ezra Pound wrote “…what the age demanded.” [Hugh Selywn Mauberley]. The age demanded overblown nationalistic symphonic music for growing radio audiences, American music sanitized from the jazz of the Jazz Age. Unquestionably the most popular and resonant song from Gershwin’s American opera was “Summertime”.


Many summers ago I was driving in Austin and a local disc jockey spent a silly and obsessive two hours playing nothing but different renditions of “Summertime”. I was fortunate to have escaped that easily; there are between 25,000 and 30,000 recorded versions. But I did came away wondering what “Summertime” could mean, even to me. Today Catfish Row is like the village Pagliacci’s wagon arrives in. The Harlem Renaissance is archived, along with Vachel Lindsey’s “Congo”, the St. James Infirmary and the Cotton Club. The roar of the twenties retains perhaps an academic allure, but in its moments it was quite the wild party. Stocks soared, religion was booming business, evolution was on trial, people seemed blissfully surrounded by a bubble of debt too big to burst, and sex, race, gangsters and music met for cocktails in glamorous lounges. It was summertime as the Depression arrived in its own wagon.

Here is the first recording of “Summertime” Abbie Mitchell sings and George Gershwin plays the piano and conducts:
Why this version is heard so seldom surprises me. It’s gorgeous, and not just for 1935. It feels both human and ethereal. It seems to speak in an almost ambient religious tone. However this is not the version that Gershwin decided to finally employ. Perhaps it was too ethereal to attract investors, or not in the swing fashion. He continued re-working the setting as he worked on “Porgy and Bess” making adjustments, although he clearly was pleased with the basic “Summertime” as a piece and employed it three times in the opera.


The next oldest recording I could locate of “Summertime” was recorded in 1936 by Billie Holiday about seven months after the show opened in New York. http:// . There are echoes of tawdry jazz age colors in the introduction. Then Billie Holiday’s vocal moves the song from a lullaby into an ironic despair tinged view of life and the false oblivion of childhood. The insistent tom toms and Artie Shaw’s clarinet bring a kind of faux jungle decadence that speaks to both the Porgy story and the political oblivion of the times, simultaneously containing the guarded slumber of a child and the monsters of Jim Crow and worse. By comparison to the 1935 recording this isn’t as fully realized, but it possesses qualities of expression that allow the singer and song to engage. The band allows itself to become an shorthand of clichés and within the vocal I sense a hesitancy and inexperience, which lend to the recording’s the overall effect of singing to an infant amid jostling. If that was the intended effect or not, I can’t exactly determine. The band was between styles, the singer young, but already abused, and the recording hurried in order to take advantage of what publicity there was surrounding the opening of” Porgy and Bess”. It arrives more as an etude for something larger and later, which is how the song is initially employed in the opera.

Sidney Bechet recorded “Summertime” June 8, 1939 with Teddy Bunn on guitar. Summer is the character; there may be a baby and it may or may not be sleeping. Mr. Bechet’s interpretive soprano voices some sense of an alley between Montmartre and Basin Street as the afternoon’s heat is abating. Mr.Bunn’s blues-influenced guitar counterpoints the free musical extrapolation with a feeling of languor and restraint. Already the song has traveled some distance away from Gershwin into the hands of the interpreter, and Sidney Bechet was seldom shy about taking possession of a song. “Summertime” was well on its way home from the opera.

End of Part One