Gershwin's Summertime: the most recorded song draws inspiration from Ukrainian lullaby and African American spiritual

Summer Evening by Childe Hassam
Summer Evening by Childe Hassam

Written by the American composer George Gershwin in 1934, Summertime aria is now the most recorded song in the history of recorded music with more than 25,000 covers made by musicians in almost every genre. The song, originally written for the not quite successful opera Porgy and Bess, comes from a folk melody which origins lie in a Ukrainian lullaby first published in 1837.

Gershwin, whose parents emigrated from Odesa shortly before his birth, retained tremendous affection for Ukrainian culture and was very impressed with the 1929 performance of the Ukrainian National Chorus conducted by Alexander Koshetz at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Indeed, it seems that the folk lullaby Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon—or A Dream Passes by the Windows—influenced the introductory line of the Summertime motif, eventually securing the song's incredible popularity that would come after the death of the composer.

Watch Ukrainian lullaby Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon performed by Veryovka Choir:

Some musicologists consider Summertime aria to be an adaptation of the African American spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child even though Gershwin himself claimed that he did not use any previously composed spirituals in his opera. Perhaps seeking a suitable atmospheric inspiration for the piece, the composer used a chord sequence typical of spiritual songs which led to some similarity of Gershwin's aria to Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

Listen to Bessie Griffin singing Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child:

Since Gershwin was among the pioneers connecting jazz with classical music, Summertime initially gained popularity precisely within the jazz scene, becoming the most popular jazz standard despite the obvious failure of the opera itself. At various times, Summertime was recorded by such jazz masters as Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker, but the first version that hit the American charts was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1936.

Listen to Gershwin's Summertime recorded by Billie Holiday and her Orchestra:

One of the most iconic versions to come out of the 1960s belongs to Janis Joplin whose blues cover added a special depth to Summertime, making Gershwin's aria an essential chant of the flower-power generation.

Watch Janis Joplin performing Summertime in Stockholm:

A rather intriguing version of the song was performed at one of The Doors concerts when Jim Morrison sang the Summertime lyrics for the instrumental accompaniment of their hit Light My Fire, apparently to the surprise of the other band members. Jim Morrison particularly drew the attention of the audience by singing "cotton is higher" while repeating the word "higher" as if drawing the analogy with the original lyrics: "girl, we couldn't get much higher".

Listen to The Doors perform Summertime:

Even now the attention to the fascinating melody of Summertime is constantly growing and the incredibly long list of covers is expanding to the new genres and unexpected collaborations of artists. An excellent 2011 trip-hop version was produced for the Mexican thriller Days of Grace by Del Naja from Massive Attack and featured Scarlett Johansson.

Listen to Summertime by Massive Attack & Scarlett Johansson:

Here are the lyrics for Summertime by DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy on which Gershwin's opera was based. The song is also co-credited to Ira Gershwin, the composer's elder brother.

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

One of these mornin's you goin' to rise up singin'
Then you'll spread yo' wings an' you'll take the sky.
But till that mornin', there's a nothin' can harm you
With Daddy an' Mammy standin' by.

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