“Summertime,” the first song in George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, is a simple lullaby. The song’s history, on the other hand, has been anything but simple. It has been recorded thousands of times in dozens of ways: Billie Holiday turned the baby’s lullaby into a sultry torch song; Janis Joplin turned “Summertime” into a psychedelic blues-rock classic; Sam Cooke injected a quiet tinkling of soul beyond even what Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong managed in their version; in 1997, rock band Sublime even sampled the song for their reggae/ska hit “Doin’ Time.”
Porgy and Bess has had an even more complicated history. Written in 1935, it has been labeled a classic by some and a racist minstrel show by others. Which is it? An innovative attempt to inject American art forms like jazz into classical music? Or a racist portrait of black life filled with the sort of sordid stereotypes that white audiences like to see?
What if it’s both—then how should we treat it? Should we bury it on the shelf? Should the opera be cleansed of its racist elements so that beautiful songs like “Summertime“ can be enjoyed? Or should we preserve the opera as an expression of the times that shaped it?
Read on and decide.
About the Song
|Album||Porgy and Bess|
|Writer(s)||George Gershwin (music), DuBose Heyward (lyrics), Ira Gershwin (lyrics—disputed)|
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Gershwin’s decision to draw upon African American art forms was inspired, in part, by the Harlem Renaissance. This cultural movement centered in Harlem, New York, represented an attempt by African American artists like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to construct an authentic black culture. White artists like Gershwin were often drawn to these artistic expressions because they believed that they represented an innocence and freshness that more established genres lacked.
Despite Gershwin’s good intentions, many labeled Porgy and Bess racist. The work was controversial when first released, and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it was condemned for its alleged stereotypical representations of African American life. At a time when African Americans were demanding their fair share of America’s political and economic pie, Porgy and Bess painted a dark picture of black communities and suggested that blacks were content to live in poverty.