tue 23/07/2024

Searching For Summertime, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Searching For Summertime, BBC Four

Searching For Summertime, BBC Four

Why did Gershwin’s humble lullaby become the most covered song of all time?

George Gershwin: not just a Tin Pan Alley hit machine

It’s a song which hangs in the air like pollen or reefer smoke, before gradually rising like a never-to-be-answered prayer. It began life as a lullaby but grew up to be a protest song, a scream of existential angst and even a purred invitation to sex.

It’s a song like no other song, in that it has been covered more than any other song (its nearest competitors being “My Way” and “Yesterday”), and it was written by three Jewish immigrants before eventually being adopted by African-Americans as their own. A friend of Gershwin’s said, when reminiscing about hearing it for the first time tentatively played on the piano, “I knew it was going to be beloved by the world.”

James Maycock’s scholarly but lively documentary wisely steered clear of cramming in too many of the 25,000 versions, focusing instead on the interpretations which said something about the time they were created in. “Summertime” was composed by the one-time “street-wise troublemaker” (as his biographer Rodney Greenberg put it) as a modest aria for Porgy and Bess, the unfashionably serious opera he wrote in order to prove himself more than just a Tin Pan Alley hit machine.

Billie Holiday upped its tempo and swung it like only she could, thus opening the doors for countless jazz covers to come

Initially some African-Americans were affronted by the idea that three New York Jews (Gershwin’s co-writers were brother Ira and poet DuBose Heyward) might think they could get inside the head of a Negro woman singing her child to sleep. But then Billie Holiday upped its tempo and swung it like only she could, thus opening the doors for countless jazz covers to come - and eventually for countless covers of every other style and genre you can think of, across the globe. But for many, the definitive version is by Ella Fitzgerald (see video below). Backed up by softly brushed drums, sparse piano and the slow velvety swing of the double bass, Ella took her time with the song, fully embracing its sultry heat-hazed atmosphere. 

Watch Ella Fitzgerald perform "Summertime"

But what made this melody and these lyrics so special? Maycock didn’t shy away from attempting to find an answer to this question, getting the perspectives of both contemporary musicians such as Courtney Pine and Angelique Kidjo (who covered it in her native language of Fon) and solid social commentators such as Bonnie Greer. It was suggested that part of the song’s secret of success and longevity lay in the emotional ambiguity created by the juxtaposition of positive, optimistic lyrics - that speak of living easy, jumping fish and spreading wings - to a bluesy minor-key melody that throws all of these positives into doubt. These words can be sung as if they are a memory of better times, a longing for better times, or an ironic, angry reflection on the never-was world of the better times they depict.

Janis Joplin negated its leanings towards nostalgia and sentimentality by bringing it fully back into the present moment, screaming for mercy

And so it was that the song’s ambiguities both absorbed and reflected the mood of individuals and epochs, giving a voice to African-American despair tempered by hope during the Depression, and African-American anger fuelled by optimism during the Civil Rights movement. The latter mood of rebellion and disillusionment was perhaps best encapsulated by Albert Ayler’s jagged, disorientating deconstruction on the saxophone (hear the track below) which, as Greer succinctly put it, “said no to the beauty of summertime”. But of course in saying no to its beauty, Ayler – like all great modernists - excavated a new beauty from its exposed entrails.

We were also told of versions by white artists with their own agendas. Julie London breathed it out as a barely veiled invitation to sex, while Janis Joplin negated its leanings towards nostalgia and sentimentality by bringing it fully back into the present moment, screaming for mercy. By the end of this captivating programme (what programme graced with a backdrop of grainy old footage of jazz musicians and 1930s Harlem isn’t captivating?), I was more than grateful that he hadn’t chosen to tell the story of this song’s nearest competitors instead: an hour on the histrionic ego trip of “My Way” or the insipid wallow in self-pity of “Yesterday” doesn’t bare thinking about. Also this film concentrated on the cover versions that have both musical and historical resonance, rather than bombarding us with clips of the likes of Liberace, Tori Amos, Sarah Brightman, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Hazel O'Connor, David Essex and Rick Wakeman. You get the picture.

Having always been as subliminally omnipresent in my life as the national anthem, I have to say the spell of “Summertime” has somewhat faded over the years (unlike “Rhapsody in Blue” which is still like oxblood theatre curtains parting to reveal the twinkling Manhattan skyline), so it was no small achievement on Maycock’s part to bring the song vividly back to life. However, what Gershwin would have made of the unprecedented fame of his unassuming little lullaby is anyone’s guess. He died of a brain tumour aged 39, just two years after writing his passport to immortality.

Hear Albert Ayler perform "Summertime"


Just listen to Leontyne Price singing what Gershwin actually wrote to get to the heart of this piece. Her exceptionally beautiful voice, recorded in her prime, is unsurpassable.

Let's throw Billy Stewart's version into the ring: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDLDl0_pt_k

So an hour on My Way doesn't bear thinking about? You have obviously forgotten one of the most repeated BBC Arena specials on just that.

Does anyone know the artist(s) who played the second to last version just before the end credits? The one that began when Colin Blunstone was speaking for the second time and carried on with Lemn Sissay speaking and then the narrator continues talking, telling us about how Kay Halle predicted its future success. It ends on a frozen still of Gershwin. . Piano version; slow.. No track listing on the bbc website for a music programme.

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