"Summertime," the man wrote in that seductive 1930s lullaby, "and the livin' is easy. Fish are jumpin', and the cotton is high. Your daddy's rich, and your mama's good lookin'. So hush, little baby, don't you cry."
What was the little one crying about, anyway? What more did she need?
One could argue that no American song has ever begun with a sweeter one-word lyric than this paean. "Summertime": separated ever so slightly from the rest of the lyrics; evocative and soothing; a hundred wondrous images, emotions, aromas, and sounds winding their way through that single drawn-out word. "And the livin' is easy": what we all long for in languid, dreamy summers; life without the harshness, without the toil. Add an achingly poignant melody and we're all halfway to taking the day off right then and there.
"Summertime" was the most popular song from the musical Porgy and Bess, which was the finest work George Gershwin ever produced. The lyrics belong to Edwin Dubose Heyward, a man who was born on a warm summer day in 1885 and, 70 years ago this past week, died on another sun-soaked summer afternoon. He wrote the play and the novel, Porgy, upon which Gershwin's folk opera was based.
Heyward had been an insurance man with a passion for literature who had worked long and hard to earn enough money to turn his life over to his true love, writing. But the Porgy and Bess tunes would be the only lyrics he'd ever attempt.
As for Gershwin, he could have lived three lifetimes and not found more suitable notes to carry those soulful verses. There's no greater tribute to what he and Heyward created than the endless stream of artists who have made a point of adding this number to their repertoire. Has any song been covered more often or by a greater variety of performers?
You can find recordings of "Summertime" by Duke Ellington, Willie Nelson, Sarah Vaughan, and Paul McCartney. Charlie Parker and Ten Years After put their spin on it, and so did the Zombies, Sonny Rollins, Joni Mitchell, Charles Mingus, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Doors, Peter Gabriel, Ricky Nelson, Doc Watson, John Coltrane, Booker T and the MGs, Dizzy Gillespie, and Herbie Hancock. Few greats have consciously turned their back on this American classic.
Summer needs its own song. The season cries out for unique rhythm and melody. The birds do their best, but it isn't enough. Summer asks for horns, or fiddles, the voice of a dark-haired woman with a bead of sweat sliding down her neck.
Some insist their summer music be light and lively, airy as a June breeze. But summer, ultimately, is a sensual season, and thus yearns for a deeper, layered sound, something earthy—a score pulsating with a fertile, sexual energy.
Take a trip back to 1957 and listen to Ella Fitzgerald luxuriate in "Summertime"'s wafting strings, and the sultry tones of Louis Armstrong's trumpet. There you'll find the season's soul.
You can prefer the Drifters performing "Under the Boardwalk" or "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful. You can lay back and take in "Hot Fun in the Summertime" by Sly and the Family Stone or Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime." And I love "Grazin' in the Grass" and the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," the Wallflowers' "Feels Like Summer" and the "Last Days of Summer" by the Cure. But if it's one song and one song only, give me "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. Play it from some portable machine sitting at an angle in the freshly cut grass. Allow me my gin and an old hammock. Hold my calls and convince me I never had a career, never set a single goal or found any direction in life, that I instead came to Earth solely to soak it in, to meditate on its sublime glory. Show me the watermelon placed on a cutting board to my left and the tanned, freckled skin on a lawn chair to my right. Allow the lawnmower that's been running, two houses down, to run out of gas, or better yet, oil. Tell the sparrow, the cardinal, and the robin they may partner with the wind and take charge of all movement for the remainder of the afternoon.
Then lay low, keep quiet, allow the late Eva Cassidy to take over and complete the song, assuring me that one morning soon I'll "rise up singing, spread my wings, and take to the sky," but till then, nothing will harm me, nothing will harm me, nothing will harm me.
How can the girl be wrong, singing so right?
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