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“Summertime” anchors George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, a work believed by many to be his most important. Gershwin started out as a “song-plugger” on Tin Pan Alley—he demoed and tried to sell other composers’ songs. At 20, he scored his first hit,“Swanee,” and within a few years he was writing musicals for Broadway with his brother Ira.
During this period, Gershwin’s music was distinguished by its fusion of popular formulas with jazz. While he aspired to make his mark as a classical composer, he hoped to infuse classical music with the distinctive sounds of American music. (He did a pretty good job of it, too, judging from the sound of Rhapsody in Blue, one of his most famous pieces.)
Porgy and Bess represented the most ambitious expression of Gershwin’s aim. He retained many of the features of opera; the musical arrangements were densely orchestrated and all of the lines were delivered as recitatives—that is, they were sung rather than spoken. Yet the opera’s music was shaped by American genres: jazz from his native New York; spirituals and gospel from the South. To ensure the authenticity of the music, Gershwin spent time in South Carolina, listening to the music that filled African American churches, festivals, and clubs.
The first song within George Gershwin and Heyward DuBose’s Porgy and Bess, ”Summertime” is set among the poor black inhabitants of Charleston, South Carolina. The opera’s controversial plot follows the fate of a handicapped beggar and the scandalous woman that he loves. The larger cultural setting for “Summertime,” however, is the interest in black music and art held by white artists and intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s.
Several factors fed this interest. During the 1920s, black artists and intellectuals built a dynamic culture of their own. Writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston, painters like Aaron Douglas and Lois Jones, and musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were among the contributors to this culture centered in Harlem and consequently labeled the Harlem Renaissance.
White intellectuals were drawn to this African American movement first for its inherent merits, but they also saw in the movement evidence of a freshness and innocence they believed absent from established art and music. However, white artists’ appreciation for black culture was compromised by the belief that African Americans offered “less civilized,” and therefore more “vital” and “natural,” forms of expression. Black writer Langston Hughes captured this underside of white fascination in his short story “Slave on the Block.”
Gershwin and DuBose deserve credit for wishing to explore African American culture and place it at the center of their “American” opera, but they certainly shared the racial views of their times. Gershwin hoped to capture the “humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race.” DuBose chose to write about blacks because he believed that the “primitive N****” was an “inheritor of a source of delight” that whites has buried through over-civilization. Both succeeded, but to many that success was also a failure.