Study Guide

Summertime

Summertime Introduction

In a Nutshell

"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?

About the Song

ArtistArmstrong, Louis and Ella Fitzgerald
Year1935
LabelVerve Records
Writer(s)George Gershwin (music), DuBose Heyward (lyrics), Ira Gershwin (lyrics—disputed)
Producer(s)N/A
Musician(s)Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)
Learn to play
AlbumPorgy and Bess

Music Video

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Influences on Armstrong, Louis and Ella Fitzgerald

Rubin Goldmark
Henry Cowell
Ludwig von Beethoven
Maurice Ravel
Claude Debussy
Dmitri Shostakovich
Igor Stravinsky
Arnold Schoenberg
African American folk music of the early 20th century
Jazz

Influenced by Armstrong, Louis and Ella Fitzgerald

Porgy and Bess, “Summertime,” and the rest of George Gershwin’s musical catalogue have influenced untold numbers of singers, songwriters, and composers throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.

Summertime Resources

Images

George Gershwin
The composer’s works include, among many others, Porgy and Bess, An American in Paris, and Rhapsody in Blue.

DuBose Heyward
His 1924 novel, Porgy, provided the story for Porgy and Bess.

Movies & TV

George Gershwin Remembered
This episode of the award-winning PBS series American Masters takes a look at the phenomenal career and short life of the American composer. His rapid rise in the 1920s and his enormous impact on American music are effectively explored.

Porgy and Bess
This production, directed by Trevor Nunn, premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1986 and then was re-staged in the BBC studios in 1993. It is the only performance of the Gershwin opera available on film.

Websites

Official Gershwin Brothers Site
This is a quality site. It provides a nice little biography, a jukebox, information on the brothers’ shows and films, and a downloadable newsletter.

Video & Audio

“Summertime,” Anne Brown
Brown played Bess in the Broadway premier of Porgy and Bess.

“Summertime,” Diahann Carroll
This rendition is from the 1959 Otto Preminger production of Porgy and Bess.

“Summertime,” Ella Fitzgerald
The First Lady of Song gave the song a jazz twist in this performance.

"Summertime,” Billie Holiday
Lady Day recorded this Dixielandish rendition less than a year after the opera premiered in 1935.

“Summertime,” Janis Joplin
Big Brother and the Holding Company recorded the song for their 1968 album, Cheap Thrills.