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Summertime, and the livin' is easy
How many songs can you name with summer in the title?
George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward wrote an innovative folk opera in Porgy and Bess, but they chose a well-traveled theme for its first song. There are literally dozens of songs titled “Summertime.”
Since just the turn of the 21st century, Beyoncé, Bon Jovi, Brian Melo, Kenny Chesney, Wiley, and the Maybes? have all recorded songs with that title. If we expand the list to include songs with “summer” in the title, the number reaches into the hundreds.
Fish are jumpin'
Why exactly do fish jump?
Lyricist DuBose Heyward started out his song by suggesting that times were good. Living was easy, the cotton was growing, and fish were jumping. It’s a nice set of images, but something of a fish story. It’s based in part on the belief that fish jump when they are hungry and therefore easily caught, but as any real angler will tell you, that’s not entirely true. Some fish do jump to snag insects floating or buzzing over the top of the water; more often, however, they jump for other, more mysterious reasons.
Some believe that fish jump just prior to spawning to loosen the eggs they are carrying. Others believe that fish jump to shake off the parasites—like sea lice or remora—that cling to their scales. Neither theory has been proven scientifically, though. However, there is evidence that certain fish, like Coral Trout, jump to impress a potential mate.
It’s possible, too, that the explanation is simpler and more intuitive: it’s fun. We all know that fish are party animals. It’s just one big rave down there under the sea, all the time. Haven’t you ever seen The Little Mermaid?
And the cotton is high
Just like with any other crop, farmers want their cotton to be high.
DuBose Heyward continued to paint a picture of good times with this line. “High cotton” was a very good thing for farmers without the aid of today’s big machines. It not only meant that your crop was robust and would fetch a good price; it also meant that it would be easy to pick—less stooping and bending.
Today the phrase still suggests good times. To be in high cotton or walking in high cotton is to be prosperous. On the farm, though, high cotton is no longer as desirable. Today cotton growers try to force more growth into the fruit than the plant. This increases yield and makes for easier mechanical picking. Shorter, more boll-heavy plants are easier to run through mechanical harvesters.
So hush little baby
Many renditions of “Summertime” could easily put a listener to sleep, which was kinda the point.
Lyricist DuBose Heyward may have tapped into some traditional lullabies in writing this line, which makes sense, because a mother trying to put her baby to sleep sings the song in the opera. Two of the most well known British and American lullabies use this line or a close variation.
The “Mockingbird Song,” a.k.a. “Hush Little Baby” includes the exact same line. While its author and date of creation are uncertain, the song was sung decades before Heyward used the line.
An American lullaby of equally uncertain origins includes a very similar line. “Hush a Bye Baby,” also known as “Rock a Bye Baby,” starts out with the line, “Hush a Bye Baby on the tree top,” in some versions. This lullaby dates to at least the 17th century, and according to some, it was inspired by a Native American practice. Some Native Americans suspended crying infants in slings attached to trees, where the movement caused by the wind would rock the babies to sleep.
Then you'll spread your wings, and you'll take to the sky
Queen bassist John Deacon borrowed this line—and perhaps more from Porgy and Bess—when he wrote the song “Spread Your Wings” in 1977.
It’s a common expression, so Queen bassist John Deacon need not have taken the title for his 1977 song from “Summertime” necessarily, but the phrase is not the only thing the two songs have in common. Deacon’s song is about a hard-luck character named Sammy who wastes his life sweeping the floor at the Emerald Bar. The message of the song is to follow his dreams—to spread his wings.
Porgy and Bess, the opera of which “Summertime” is a part, tells the story of a hard-luck handicapped person named Porgy. He pines for the beautiful but scandalous Bess, until finally he is given the opportunity to reveal his feelings and woo her. DuBose Heyward, who wrote the libretto for the opera and the words to this song, was inspired by a real character in his home town of Charlestown, South Carolina: a disabled man named Sammy Smalls who traveled around town in a small cat pulled by a goat.