Summertime

Abbie Mitchell, first person to record ‘Summertime’, via Wikipedia

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush little baby, don’ yo’ cry

Every song has been borrowed. One welcomes originality and should be dismayed by formula, but a song must always have come from somewhere else. A song must always have been learned from somewhere, whether the felling, phrases or elements of a tune: the expression of an experience that makes sense when it is sung. One knows song can do this, which inspires the new song, and so will that song inspire the next. Every song is defined by, and is a product of, its inheritance.

So every song is a borrower. It reflects what the composer has heard, what the singer feels best able to express, and we have heard and need to hear again. The most unexpected or original song, the supposedly new, either contains at root the elements of the familiar, or so plays against the expected that it amounts to the same thing. It is always a reaction to something.

One of the joys of modern song is the amount of borrowing that has taken place, because we have heard so much and have so much to enjoy and refer to. We sense not just a song’s immediate antecedent, but a whole family, generations even, from which the song derives. How rich our imaginations must have become, to have such an inheritance playing in our heads.

Thus, I would argue, cultural appropriation is is an inevitability, indeed a necessity. We must sing again that which we recognise as worth singing, and we are the richer for it. It is what true culture is all about.

One of these mornings, you’re goin’ to rise up singin’
Then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take the sky
But ’til that mornin’, there’s a-nothin’ can harm you
With daddy and mommy standin’ by

Such were the thoughts I had while listening some versions of ‘Summertime‘. The song, or aria to be exact, comes from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. The opera tells of the lives of poor African-Americans in Catfish Row, Charleston, and street beggar Porgy’s rescue of the drug-addled Bess. It was adapted out of a play, Porgy, by white Americans, husband-and-wife writers Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward, which was itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name. ‘Summertime’ itself had music by George Gershwin and lyric by DuBose Heyward (though sources credit Ira Gershwin as well).

Aria and opera and play and novel express a life with which the writers had great sympathy, but could not know. In the wrong hands, something patronising and false would have emerged. The music alone without the right lyric would have failed; the lyric without the complementary music likewise. But ‘Summertime’ is not just an expression of sympathy; it is the transference of experience. We are what we are because of the songs that we sing.

‘Summertime’ is a blues lullaby. Its alternating pattern, imitating a child’s lullaby yet also having the air of a funeral dirge, literally swings as the child in its cot must rock, to and fro. The alternation in the rise-and-fall coupling of each line (“One of these mornings, you’re goin’ to rise up singin'”) exist also in the balance between childhood and adulthood, between hope and harm, between the light and the thought of the dark that makes the light what it is.

Every line surprises, lyrically and musically. There’s the opening word, pause, and the promise of easy livin’. There’s the surprise image of fish jumping, the irony implicit in daddy and mommy’s blessings, the arresting injunction to “take the sky” (later versions play it safe and say “take to the sky”), the danger implicit in flight in the reassuring yet troubling words “til that mornin’, there’s a-nothin’ can harm you”. And driving the sentiments is the A minor blues, the eerie tread of the lullaby dirge, that knows every hopeful flight brings a fall.

One of these mornings, you’re goin’ to rise up singin’
Then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take the sky
But ’til that mornin’, there’s a-nothin’ can harm you
With daddy and mommy standin’ by

(There are two verses in the original libretto, but the second repeated in many of the subsequent covers).

As regular readers will now, some while ago now I produced lists of favourite guitar solos, bass lines, drummers and singers. Having put together group (the unlikely teaming of Mike Oldfield, George ‘Fully’ Fullwood, Jaki Liebezeit and Sandy Denny), I explored what they might play by looking at some genres (blues, country, reggae), then turned to songs they might include in their repertoire. The first song I explored was ‘In the Pines‘. As with that standard whose richness is revealed through its many versions, I have pick ten personal favourite interpretations of ‘Summertime’. It’s a fine song (or aria) for anyone to have ready to play. Your audience will always appreciate it, be ready to hear it once again, to have it reaffirmed in their hearts. It is a song to suit all occasions, all styles, all cultures. Out of its specificity comes a common feeling. That is what the best of songs must borrow, and share.

10. Abbie Mitchell, ‘Summertime’

The first recording made of ‘Summertime’ was by Abbie Mitchell, with George Gershwin on piano and conducting. Anything but a period piece, it has an ethereal feel to make the listener shiver. Its shock effect is all the greater for being preceded by the matter-of-fact Introduction. Just when we think we know where we are musically, in sweeps Mitchell’s otherworldly soprano, beguiling and beyond any simple explanation, the very stuff of dreams.

9. The Wilde Flowers, ‘Summertime’

The Wilde Flowers were a 1960s Kent band who released no recordings in the five years of their existence, but through their combination of jazz, blues, pop and the experimental, gave rise to a family of musicians who inherited the same musical sensibility, the so-called ‘Canterbury Scene’: among them Caravan, Hatfield & the North and The Soft Machine. Two members of the latter, Mike Ratledge (piano) and Robert Wyatt (very quiet drums), play on this low-fi home tape that simultaneously makes ‘Summertime’ the tune that you recognise yet finds something in its ruminative rambling that you had not imagined was there before. It’s such a thoughtful piece.

8. Albert Ayler, ‘Summertime’

Avant-garde saxophonist Ayler isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Every time you think he is going to touch you with the tune’s sweetness, he attacks you with its jagged qualities instead. It’s not a version to send any child to sleep, but it is profoundly true to ‘Summertime”s lullaby roots. Childhood and adulthood, hope and harm, light and dark.

7. The Marcels, ‘Summertime’

The Marcels were an American doo-wop group of the late 50s/early 60s, who made a speciality of turning standards upside down. They are best-known for their high tempo, mocking yet sincere version of ‘Blue Moon’ (“Ba-bom-a-bom-bom, Ba-bom-a-bom-bom, Ba-dang-a-dang-dang, Ba-ding-a-dong-ding, Blue Moon…”). ‘Summertime’ was their follow-up single and similarly turns a standard into pop in a form that makes you smile while respecting the song’s core strength. There’s little of the darkness in its sunny world, but deep down it still swings.

6. Aaron Neville, ‘Summertime’

I’ve never quite cared as much for Aaron Neville as much as I should because I find the distinctive waver in his voice too much of a distraction. His 2003 cover of ‘Summertime’ certainly has its fair share of the wavering, but in this jazz setting it has something of the nature of scat about it, and the vocal tone is sublime. It’s a version that forces you to listen intently, as each bar leads the mind to explore further.

5. Dave Edmunds, ‘Summertime’

Dave Edmunds, Wales’s finest (arguably), is steeped in the heritage of American rock’n’roll, but reaches back a little for this 1968 recording of ‘Summertime’ performed with his group Love Sculpture. It is sweeping, epic, with some blistering guitar (memorably echoed by the vocals in places) and something of an operatic sweep, which Gershwin might have recognised (once he got over the surprise).

4. Big Brother & The Holding Company, ‘Summertime’

Perhaps the most celebrated of all pop or rock versions of ‘Summertime’ is this show-stopping 1968 recording from Big Brother and the Holding Company, whose singer was of course Janis Joplin. Her vocals – rasping, pleading, mourning – have a jazz saxophone quality to them. If you’ve been listening to the above, it’s a like a combination of Ayler and Edmunds, with an added exploratory quality typical of its psychedelic era.

3. Joanne Shaw Taylor, ‘Summertime’

Taylor is a very accomplished British blues singer and guitarist. This moody, melodic and adventurous version of ‘Summertime’, from 2016, tackles the song like it’s something only just written, never heard before, with musicians all giving of their very best to make the most of this newly-discovered gem. It’s rather magnificent.

2. Sidney Bechet, ‘Summertime’

Sidney Bechet’s 1939 instrumental version of ‘Summertime’ is extraordinary. Bechet was one of the founding fathers of jazz. His clarinet and soprano saxophone playing did so much to establish the tone of jazz. Here his music is timeless, or perhaps time-ful. It looks back, it is of its moment, and it would be recognised by the explorers and experimenters that were to come. ‘Summertime’, for Bechet, is the opportunity to express all that the music can do.

1. Adam Faith, ‘Summertime’

Adam Faith, the British pop singer with a smart mind behind the froth that he sang, who turned into a fine actor, recorded ‘Summertime’ for his 1960 debut alum Adam. Why is it top of the list? The dreamy orchestration has something to do with it, but at heart it’s the measured vocal, which captures the melancholy and the contradictions, the hope and the harm, that makes the song so distinctive. And that surprise rise in the vocal on the final word ‘by’, just when the listener thinks they know where things are. It’s the model rendition. Adam Faith is the last person George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were thinking of when they wrote ‘Summertime’, yet in another sense he is exactly the person they were thinking of. It has that common feeling.

All of the above, a several more, are listed in this Spotify list. As with all the best songs, the finest covers do not pall. They just make you want to discover more.

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