June 20 was the year’s first official day of summer, and the next morning Bruce and I began our long flight home from Berlin across the ocean during the almost-longest day of the year. I have always appreciated exultations and summer ribaldry and have always celebrated the summer solstice in one way or another. Sometimes this has been in throwing or attending wild parties in a nod to the ancient festivals and bacchanalia. Sometimes it’s quiet bird-watching or just watching the sun rise. I always try to note the winter solstice as well, and to celebrate then that at least the days will start getting longer again.
One of the most quintessential summer songs is George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from the opera Porgy and Bess. It captures the languid sense of heat while also acknowledging that no one is likely to starve in the summertime. The opera is also an early example of the experience of African Americans capturing the white imagination in a sympathetic way—DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy became a bestseller in 1926, then did well as a non-musical play on Broadway in 1927, before George Gershwin re-wrote it as Porgy and Bess, which opened in 1935. It has been recently revived as a Broadway play.
“Summertime” was, of course, highly influenced by the African-American spirituals of Heyward’s South Carolina inspiration. And some singers, such as Mahalia Jackson, began recording that song in a medley with the traditional African-American spiritual “Sometimes I Fell Like a Motherless Child,” a commentary on the once-common practice of selling slave children away from their mothers. It’s a brilliant combination, one that’s explained and acknowledged in this perceptive article about researching “Summertime” for a BBC documentary. “As Jackson combines the songs,” James Maycock notes, “so she segues from a faux-spiritual written by two white men about a baby who has everything into a genuine 19th-century spiritual about a baby who has nothing. It’s no coincidence that Jackson recorded her version at the dawn of the civil rights movement in 1956.”
The top version I give here is a shorter, live-recorded version with wonderful video of Jackson singing from a rocking chair on stage. The one below is, best as I can tell, the longer version she recorded earlier and has better sound quality but lacks the interesting visuals. Both are pretty terrific.