That “and” is worth a great deal of attention. I would write “Summertime when” but that “and” sets up a tone, a whole poetic tone, not to mention a whole kind of diction that is going to be used in the play; an informal, uneducated diction and a stream of consciousness, as in many of the songs like “My Man’s Gone Now.” It’s the exact right word, and that word is worth its weight in gold. “Summertime when the livin’ is easy” is a boring line compared to “Summertime and.” The choices of “ands” [and] “buts” become almost traumatic as you are writing a lyric–or should, anyway– because each one weighs so much. [Joanne Lesley Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL., 1990, p.13]
[one_half padding=”4px 8px 0 4px”]In my opinion, the two great American composers of the twentieth century were Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin. Without casting any aspersions on any of the other wonderful composers of that era, those two managed to find unique ways to take the American experience, both good and bad, and translate it to a tonality that is rich, vibrant, unique, and immediately identifiable. Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue may be two of the most distinguishably American compositions of that century. I grew up listening to a heavy mix of both composers, but it was Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess that captured my attention most strongly, particularly the aria Summertime. Of all the songs from this first truly American opera, Summertime captures our deepest longings not only for ourselves, but for our children.
As a child, it was Leontyne Price’s incredible voice I first heard sliding through the lazy melody of the song, the vocal line at times reminiscent of the opening clarinet slide from Rhapsody in Blue. This is a song one doesn’t rush through, its phrasing and emphasis requiring a deceptively difficult level of vocal control and discipline. Do it right, and one can feel the heat of the sun beating down, smell the cotton and the dirt, hear the water gurgling over the rocks. Summertime is a song that catches us not at the beginning of the summer when we are happy to finally be warm, but at its apex, late July or August, when we’ve grown tired of working, when the sweat doesn’t require any effort before soaking our clothes, and grabbing a pole and going fishing may be the most sensical thing a person can do.
I didn’t hear Janis Joplin’s cover of the song in 1968 when it was initially released, or if I did, it didn’t stick. Price’s version was so strong, so dominating, that my classically-sensitized ear was certain no one else could do the song justice. After the Houston Opera’s revival of Porgy and Bess in 1976 restored the full opera as initially written, though, there were a number of comparisons, at least on an intellectual level, between what Gershwin wrote and the incredible emotion Joplin gives the song. It might have taken me to the second verse before falling completely in love with Joplin’s cover that not only modernizes the song with Peter Albin’s mesmerizing guitar but embeds the emotion all the way down to one’s soul.[/one_half]
[one_half_last padding=”4px 4px 0 8px”]Based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, the song’s lyrics are based on the spirituals of the 19th century South, and while the first verse sets the stage for how things are, it is the future-leaning words of the second verse that Joplin pushes, giving strength to the phrase “rise up singin'” in a way that even Ms. Price never quite managed to accomplish.
One of these mornings, you’re goin’ to rise up singin’
Then you spread your wings and you’ll take the sky
But ’til that mornin’, there’s nothin’ can harm you
With daddy and mammy standin’ by
Today’s image, in my mind, perfectly captures the end result of Joplin’s version of the song. I could feel the song in my ears even while we were shooting this set (in a public park). Where Gershwin’s original leaves one in the cotton field, Joplin leaves one in the tall grass, lying on your back, looking up at a terminally blue sky, not a care in the world, and confident that whatever comes next is going to be wonderful. One of these days we’re goin’ to rise up singin’, but for now, it’s summertime and living couldn’t be any more easy.
Summertime – (Big Brother & The Holding Company-Janis Joplin), a song by Janis Joplin on Spotify