Bobbie Billups

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Wise Words

When I heard that Summertime was going to be the theme for the current issue of Creative Magazine I immediately thought of the 1035 Broadway Folk Opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin. According to Wikipedia, Gershwin was attempting to create his own spiritual song mimicking the African American folk music of the 1920s. Gershwin was inspired by the Broadway play, Porgy, written by Dubose Heyward and his wife Dorothy.

The lyrics and the music of the classic and very popular song, Summertime, kept buzzing around in my head.

In the opera, Clara, a young black woman sings the lullaby, Summertime, to her baby.

DuBose Heyward, wrote the lyrics of Summertime under the direction of George Gershwin that the lyrics be written for a black slave woman to sing a lullaby to a white baby in her care.

DeBose’s book was written in 1925 about a fictional place based on the lives of the Gullah community who were the descendants of slaves. Gershwin and Heyward studied the lives of the ethnic minority of the Gullahs in South Carolina. With this backdrop as the inspiration for the opera, the lyrics of Summertime could not possibly portray a black woman singing to her black child that the living is easy, because it wasn’t. Blacks had no control or participation when there was good fishing or high cotton. Your daddy’s rich and your mom is good looking. Blacks were not rich and black women were not considered beautiful. There was hope of rising, spreading wings and safety from harm for whites and not for blacks during that time.

The opera is a peek into the lives of people who lived on Catfish Row, a tenement neighborhood in Charleston, Carolina, in the 1920s. The Summertime lullaby is a beautiful classic and sung by renowned singers from internationally acclaimed Leontyne Price to Sam Cooke and all those in between. However, my research has not uncovered why this particular song was dropped into the opera and it contradicted the vision that George Gershwin commissioned DeBose to write it.

This contradiction does not take away the genius and respect that Gershwin’s opera commands.
It is just a little trivia, if correct, that makes me want to say “hmmm”!

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