Message 100, Summer Songs, “Summertime” and the African-American Spiritual, 7-8-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved



On a number of Sundays, we have explored in here how we might find inner peace during times of struggle and hardship.  When a crisis hits – either big or small, when our health gives out, when the weight of the world seems to be on our shoulders, how do we cope?  How do we survive not just the physical threat during times of stress, but the inner emotional and spiritual pain?

Surprisingly, as I have noted before, humans have an amazing ability to cope with crisis.  Despite great psychic pain, most people are resilient enough to emerge from difficult times with their emotional health intact.  Through friendships, prayer, meditation, support by loved ones and personal strength, issues like depression and grief are largely overcome.  As individuals and as a species, we find ways to survive.

One of the remarkable aspects of African-American culture has been its communal power to overcome and to weather, together, the horrific times of slave ship, plantation, Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights.  African-Americans have relied on family, strong community ties and their faith to maintain a heroic sense of possibility, hope and positive thinking.   Black spirituals – the African-American musical contribution to our national culture – have been primary tools in their arsenal of ways to cope.  While often repetitive and seemingly simplistic, black gospel and spiritual music emotionally resonate within their community.  Spirituals forge and reinforce bonds of togetherness.  The music emphasizes eternal verities of persistence, hope and even ecstatic joy that suffering is but a temporary roadblock.  Dawn will come in the morning, heaven awaits at the end, joy will defeat darkness and all will be well in this life or the hereafter.

George Gershwin was asked in 1930 by the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York to compose an American opera.  He was offered free reign to choose the story or libretto.  Gershwin had the perfect story in mind – a relatively obscure play called Porgy by Dubose Heyward.  The play was set in South Carolina and its characters were almost entirely African-American.  But the Met was part of the racist Jim Crow institution of the time, refusing to permit any black singer or performer.  For characters who are black, the Met insisted on using white actors in blackface.  Gershwin refused to compromise the inherent African-American power and poignancy of the story by using white actors.  He turned down the Met’s commission but composed the opera anyway.

He began writing his piece in 1933 and a new American opera, Porgy and Bess, debuted in 1935 using an all black cast.  It was produced by the Theatre Guild of New York.  It ran with mixed reviews – critics were not sure if it was a comedy or serious piece of social commentary.  Some African-American critics decried the portrayal of the black experience by a white librettist – Dubose Heyward, and a white composer – George Gershwin.  Overall, though, it was accepted within the black community as one of the first mainstream opera productions that paid homage to the black experience and black spiritual music in particular.  While the first production would run for just over 100 performances, its fame grew and it was soon revived and produced across the nation – running even at the Met less than ten years later.  In 1959, it was adapted into a motion picture starring Sidney Poitier and won the Best Picture Academy Award.

Steven Sondheim and other music and opera commentators have since hailed Porgy and Bess as perhaps the greatest of American operas.  While its lyrics and music were written by whites, its songs have been largely embraced by the African-American community – finding their way into the jazz and blues repertoire of such greats like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.  Gershwin had taken seriously the endeavor to recreate the black musical sound.  He travelled South Carolina extensively and visited hundreds of black churches – listening to their indigenous music and choral sounds.  The cadence and rhythm of Porgy and Bess songs almost perfectly recreate not just the sound of black spirituals but their emotional resonance.  The signature musical piece of the opera, a song entitled “Summertime”, is now considered a jazz and blues classic – one of the foremost pieces in the distinctly American contribution to world music.

And in that regard, “Summertime” is a perfect fit for our July effort to find spiritual inspiration from songs.  Much like the song we looked at last week, “This Land is My Land” by Woodie Guthrie and Neil Young, “Summertime” may not seem to be profoundly spiritual.  But its power and its enduring legacy is that it is exactly that – it offers a deeply spiritual message in the tradition of black gospel music that has roots in the slave ship and plantation field experiences.  Let’s listen to the song now as performed by Billie Holliday in 1936 – a jazz style interpretation versus the operatic one.  You can read the lyrics on the reverse of your programs.

The story of Porgy and Bess is set in the fictional Catfish Row area of Charleston, South Carolina.  That area was based on the actual Cabbage Row section – the low country regions of the outer bank islands east of the city.  This was swamp land perfect for the cultivation of rice…….and the breeding of malaria infected mosquitoes.  Africans were largely immune to such diseases but whites were not.  Historically, this low country area was abandoned by white land owners and left to poor white overseers and black slaves imported from eastern Africa who were used to work in swampy rice fields.  These African slaves created their own unique identity called the Gullah culture -free of white influences and one which remains vibrant today.  Gullah culture has its own language, food, music, art and traditions which largely borrow from black African roots.  It thrived in its isolation from the white world and is therefore hailed today as an inspiration for blacks precisely because it preserves much that is African.  Heyward and Gershwin borrowed heavily from Gullah culture in their writing of Porgy and Bess.

The opera is a tale of despair, death, murder, and drugs.  Like all great tragedies, however, it also embodies themes of uplifting loyalty, love and hope.  Ambrose Heyward, who wrote the libretto, based his story about the character Porgy on an actual man.  The story’s tragedy is thus founded not on white racist mythology but on elements of truth.

As I said, many critics even today decry this story as one that perpetuates the worse aspects of black life.  It seems to validate white racist views that African-American culture is one of loose morals, fighting and rampant crime.  Indeed, its story might just as easily be set in the confines of Over-the-Rhine and yet, to reduce its themes to one of drugs, murder and infidelity is to miss its evocative nature as a universally human story.

Porgy is a crippled man of little means who nevertheless has a cheerily positive outlook on life and who loves, from afar, the beautiful and flirtatious Bess.  She continues to succumb to the seductions of life – men who want sex and who buy it with drugs and crime.  As an essentially good person, Bess is an addict and eventually flees Charleston for New York City, pulled along by the drug pusher who plays to her weaknesses.  Porgy is in love with Bess and even murders one of her nefarious suitors.  In the midst of this central story line, a hurricane hits the coast and takes the life of Clara and her husband Jake – two members of the community and associates of Porgy and Bess.  At the conclusion of the story, Porgy is setting off for New York City, a place he did not know.  In an image worthy of Don Quixote, Porgy departs by goat cart in a desperate but hope filled crusade to find and rescue the woman he loves.

In the tradition of Hamlet, Othello or Don Quixote, Porgy is a tragic hero – crippled in his own way but determined to overcome.  In the same manner, Bess is crippled by her addiction to drugs and men.  Far from being a caricature of black life, the story brings to mind universal themes of human weakness, failure, pain and loss.  As tragic as the story might be, it refuses to wallow in human misery.  Like all of us who face struggle and hardship, the characters are amazingly resilient in their effort to overcome.

And that is the central message of the opera and of its signature song “Summertime” – one that is sung at three different times by three different characters – thus lending to it the hope that any person harbors in their soul.  The song is first sung by Clara to her baby – a lullaby intended to soothe and calm.  It is sung again by Bess – this time after the baby’s mother and father die in the hurricane.  Finally, Porgy sings pieces of the song in his hope filled preparations to find Bess in New York.

Such hope and positive thinking are persistent themes of this song and of other black spirituals.  Life may be full of pain, and despair may be a reality ….. yet, in our minds, we must conjure the easy life of languid summer days full of peace and plenty.   Don’t you cry, child.  Mommy and daddy are here – life is tough but hope is stronger.  One of these days, child, you will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of this life, spreading angel wings to fly off in your own resurrection to find heaven on earth.

This theme of finding peace is a hallmark of black spiritual music.  It is a hallmark of the African-American experience.  Black spirituals are a means to cope with years of slavery, hellish discrimination and bitter inequality.  Drawing strongly from Biblical themes and imagery, “Summertime” continues the tradition of black spirituals that originated during slavery – ones like “Sweet Chariot”, “Down by the Riverside”, and “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho” – all speaking to the hope and promise of redemption.  African-American slaves identified strongly with the Jewish exodus story – that of Egyptian slavery, escape, endurance and freedom in the promised land.  Moses and Jesus were figures of deliverance to the black slave or poor share-cropper – god-like heroes who will redeem the enslaved, poor and weak.

Black spiritual music indeed captures the essence of genuine spirituality.  It is a spirituality that refuses to give up, refuses to languish, refuses to accept defeat.  Such music and spirituality envisions the promise of heaven on earth –  a realm of justice, comfort and peace – and our human calling to help build it.  Much like Moses was a flawed man given to indecision and violence, Porgy is literally crippled by his physical limp and his all too human anger in the face of injustice.  But Moses and Porgy both rise up in their refusal to be beaten down.  They are heroes in their own way – deeply flawed persons who fight the good fight.  Bess is like all of us – one who is weak when tempted and too easily overwhelmed by the crippling forces of life.  But she too is a heroic figure – one who loves and comforts others while trying to be a better person.

In 1930’s America, many African-Americans were just beginning to retreat from rural and agrarian lifestyles.  Many were ashamed of that poor and seemingly backward culture.  The opera Porgy and Bess depicts this rural culture and even celebrates its rough and tough life.  For many critics, even some who write today, the opera is a racist depiction of the worst of black culture.  It perpetuates, they say, racist ideas about how African-Americans live and act.

While the opera was, indeed, written by white men, it nevertheless is symbolic of the black and, for that matter, universal human experience.  The Jewish slaves depicted in the Bible were not paragons of virtue despite their heroic suffering.  Just days after their miraculous escape, they began to bitterly complain and fall into depression about their food and long hot desert days.  In time, they too succumbed to their temptations and indulged in wild worship of the golden calf – celebrating sex, booze and riches.

It is often too easy for me and many whites to wonder about the lives of African-Americans who fall into crime, drugs, out-of-wedlock parenthood and unemployment.  What I and white America often forget to understand is that such flaws are not unique to blacks.  Whites too suffer from issues of addiction and temptation.  Such is the eternal fate of humankind – we are all fallen people struggling against our weaknesses that enjoy sex, strong drink, bouts of depression and other forms of self-focused living.  We, as humans, are all too consumed with the needs of the self.

Such flaws are not only common, they define us as humans – as creatures dwelling for a time on this cruel earth while aspiring to a better life and a better soul.  To be flawed is to be a member of the human race.  Too often we are victims of our own humanity – inflicting on ourselves or on others the indignities of hate, violence and emotional distress.   The black experience of struggle against the forces of pain in their culture – addiction, infidelity and crime – are direct manifestations of the hurt inflicted on them by white America.  Such is often the case for any individual or culture.  We react, often badly, to the pain we experience.

The triumphant glory of the black experience, however, is their persistent ability to cope and ultimately thrive.  As I said earlier, black spiritual music was one of their primary survival tools.  And the song “Summertime” is a classic rendition of such spiritual music.  Hope is not an empty emotion.  Finding peace in one’s heart and mind are not worthless endeavors.  Claiming the strength and will to overcome is not an idle boast.  They are powerful truths that speak to what spirituality is all about.  We are called to be ever growing, ever learning, and ever aspiring to grow wings and fly as transcendent angels bringing justice, compassion and love to a hurting world.

White, protestant America – of which the Gathering follows in its traditions – is too often stuck in the western mindset of dour determination and rational thinking.  We arrogantly assume our ways to be better than African, oriental or latino cultures.  We enjoy our music and watch our westernized operas and symphonies believing them to be superior or more complex than simple and repetitive African spirituals.  Also, in a form of subtle racism, whites demean the black experience of struggle against personal demons – ignoring the fact they have their own.  The vagaries of crime and drugs and infidelity in urban American are no worse and no better than the inside trading crimes, alcoholism, multiple divorces and psychological therapy endemic to white, middle class suburbia.  Black, white, yellow or brown, we are all humans prone to the same inner demons.  Like all humanity, we all also yearn to act as better angels.

Listening to the song “Summertime” in the dog days of our own summer is a rapturous experience.  Even more so, however, is the realization that the song evokes the pain and promise of not only the African-American experience but of the universal human experience as well.  Such experience is truly one of overcoming hardship through positive thinking and refusing to accept defeat.  The black tradition has always been about endurance while yearning for what is good in human nature.  We, as largely members of a white culture, would be wise to learn from that.

I, like many of you, know too many stories of people fighting personal temptations, people aching with physical pain, friends in deep grief, dear ones in anguish.  But, my friends, for any of us caught in such everyday trials of hard work, mourning, poor health, loneliness, addiction or depression…………it’s summertime and the living is easy.  Your daddy’s rich and your momma’s good looking.  And one of these mornings, child, you’re going to rise up singing, spreading wings and you’ll take to the sky.  Life is tough but hope is truly, truly stronger.

I wish you all much joy and even more peace…