If you’d asked me two weeks ago who wrote the song Summertime, I’d have said the Gershwins. Music by George, lyrics by Ira. And I’d have been wrong. Well, half wrong.
I noticed the credits in my music book. Music George Gershwin. Lyrics DuBose Heyward. Who’s he? Google led me to storytelling, music and South Carolina.
Edwin DuBose Heyward (1885-1940) was a white South Carolinian. His parents were Edwin Watkins Heyward and Jane Screven DuBose. His father died in an accident at a rice mill when DuBose was two years old.
His mother supported two children by working as a seamstress but her love was stories and words. She wrote poetry and sought out old stories and folklore of the Carolinas.
Jane passed on her love of stories, and the importance of their context, to her son. He too wrote poetry and stories, especially during his late teens when he was confined to his bed with polio, then typhoid fever and pleurisy.
However, growing up poor, while having a genteel planter family history, taught DuBose the value of economic security. He became an insurance agent.
But he married a playwright, Dorothy Kuhns. Like his mother, Dorothy encouraged his love of words and stories. So he kept on writing.
Porgy to Porgy and Bess
His novel Porgy was published in 1925. It became a best seller and he and his wife turned it into a play. George Gershwin read the novel in 1926, and imagined it in music. So he wrote to Heyward and asked he could turn it into an opera. Heyward said yes, but.
You have to come to South Carolina, Heyward said. You have to know where the stories come from. Gershwin made a couple of brief visits in late 1933 and early 1934. Back in New York, he wrote the music for Summertime, with Heyward’s lyrics.
But for the rest of it, more time in South Carolina was needed. So Gershwin moved into a rented cottage on Folly Island. With Heyward, he got to the work of getting to know the music. Gershwin became an observer of, and participant in, Gullah music.
He stayed in South Carolina for several months and wrote the music for Porgy and Bess. He returned to New York and Heyward came with him. Heyward, with some input from Ira Gershwin, wrote the libretto and lyrics.
The opera, produced in 1935, received mixed reviews. David Zax (2010) says it was seen by those wanting classic opera as being too much Broadway spectacular, and by those wanting Broadway spectacular as being too much classic opera. George Gershwin considered it his best writing ever. But he didn’t live long enough to see many others agree. He died in July 1937. Since then, it has become a classic as both classic opera and Broadway spectacular.
Summertime, on its own, has become a classic. It has been covered more than any other song ever by singers of all genres. It’s a lullaby, so it’s short and simple. But its simplicity allows – even encourages – vocal and instrumental improvisation. Google it and just randomly play some of the many versions you will find. Below are two that I think perfectly show the beauty of this song: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Sam Cooke.
DuBose Heyward wrote many more books. Few are known today, but a children’s book ought to be. His mother’s influence again in The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (1939). It is a story she told him when he was a child about how a girl rabbit wins a very important bunny contest. (Tap on the title for Amazon.)
Heyward died of a heart attack in June 1940, just three years after George Gershwin’s death. His wife Dorothy died in 1961. They had a daughter, Jenifer, who was a sculptor, actress and dancer.
“Summertime for George Gershwin” by David Zax is in Smithsonian Magazine Aug. 8, 2010.