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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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2 comments so far
  • Lazz 3 months ago

    Hi Serg.

    Gershwin drew upon spirituals and Jewish cantorial tradition - not Ukranian.

    Oh my goodness - Janis Joplin...
    She sure means a great deal to many people - but I cannot find a way to share their opinion. There is no "special depth" in the way she and her awful band murder the song. The performance is not "iconic" and neither was it an "essential chant" for my generation.

    I found Jim Morrison's take on it pretty sad, too. Manzarek and Krieger damn sure should know the tune's changes - they're no slouches, it's a well-worn standard, pretty easy-peasy, part of the repertoire with which they are familiar - so quite why they don't climb on the bus and respond to the sung melody more decently is beyond my grasp. They seem determined just to keep to the boring endless minor vamp. Despite Kreiger quoting "My Favourite Things" as if to say he's hip to 'Trane, modalism fails to fire in their hands and functions only as soporific. What a huge relief when they eventually honour the tune's brief change to major near the end of their performance.

    But if we're talkin about versions of Summertime which were particularly potent and influential in the '60s, Serg, we shouldn't be overlooking Billy Stewart's explosive rendering. It's the biggest-selling recording of the song.
    Here 'tis - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VkA8HoB5m8
    Radical.

    While also vaguely a fan of the Bristol scene and Massive Attack, I find myself much more drawn to the contemporary vocal styling of Angelique Kidjo - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYk670bY2-s

    Hope you enjoy my recommendations.

    Thank you for providing content to engage with.

  • Serg Childed 3 months ago

    hi Lazz,
    many thanks for your input!

    the version by the Doors can be considered the most unexpected record of all 25,000 covers, and i also first heard Summertime from Janice much earlier than the original, so these picks come from personal experience which often isn't defined by either their seminal qualities/compositional value or my current views on the proficiency of those artists etc. much like yourself, i talked about the things that made an impact on me and people around me decades ago! thank you for sharing your personal faves, that's why we do the things we do! 

    by the way, videos in comments will be embedded after registration.

    p. s. i agree, this is a really awesome record:

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