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The Intersection of Science, Art, Music & Humanities

Porgy & Bess: A Long Pull to Get There

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Like so many other cities around the country, we're having a June heatwave. It almost hit 100 degrees here in Colorado Springs this past week, therefore my need to listen to the smouldering sound track from George Gershwin’s innovative folk opera, Porgy and Bess.


This 1935 score, like so many Gershwin musicals, speaks to many social and political issues that are still with us and always heat up in the summertime.   


The Tony-winning 2012 revival clip above features the glorious Audra McDonald, who turned the aria into a pensive, lilting reflection on one of my favorite words, possibilities: 

“One of these mornings you’re going to rise up singing, then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky."


Jazz singer Billie Holiday, placed the "Summertime" emphasis on “Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin',” in her sultry Dixieland rendition. Janice Joplin’s throaty Rock and Roll cover, backed by a blues-psychedelic arrangement, built toward a powerful climax that left her fans screaming for more. 


In Porgy and Bess, this opening song is a lullaby sung by Clara to her baby, “So hush little baby, don’t you cry.”


The Broadway musical tunes we chose for the last Sunday Morning Stop at the Intersection of Science, Art, Music and Humanities in June 2018, also features, "It ain't necessarily so."

When Porgy and Bess was first produced in 1935, it drew a boatload of criticism. Many thought that a four-hour opera was simply, too long. Others argued that Gershwin’s attempt to blend the old and the new, the classic and the popular, was unsuccessful. 


The most troubling criticism of Porgy and Bess was that it was racist—just a 20th-century minstrel show that invited white audiences to stare at stereotyped representations of African American life.

The song, “I Got Plenty O' Nuttin',” seemed to celebrate poverty as a source of happiness, which was as rightfully insulting then as it is now.    


Apparently Gershwin was surprised by the response. He said that he was inspired by the music and spirit of the people he found in the poor Charleston neighborhood he visited while researching the opera.  


Edwin DuBose Heyward, the author best known for his 1925 novel, Porgy and Bess, claimed that he saw, "the primitive Negro as the inheritor of a source of delight that I would give much to possess."

Heyward and his playwright wife Dorothy adapted his book as the 1927 play of the same name, and also worked with George Gershwin to adapt the work into the 1935 opera. 


Given today's times, it still doesn’t look like the controversy surrounding Porgy and Bess will go away anytime soon because the opera still taps into ongoing tensions surrounding human rights, poverty, racism, sexism, and representation in America. "It takes a long pull to get there."


Our sincere intention is to thoughtfully acknowledge the subject matter, and the timeless work of Edward DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin. 


Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff


Here is Janice Joplin's version of "Summertime" for all of our Filmore lovin' friends. 



Biosyntrx strongly believes that appreciation, exploration and commitment to science, art, music, history, and humanities add significantly to the global greater good and are important parts of the intellectual whole.