Monday, June 23, 2008

Easy Livin, Jumpin' Fish, High Cotton

by Steve Pick

According to Wikipedia, there are between 2400 and 4000 recordings extant of George Gershwin's "Summertime." (Yes, the democratic nature of wiki work means two such different numbers turn up on the same page.) This puts it right up there with McCartney's "Yesterday" as the most recorded song of all time.

I believe firmly that one should never say never, but I can definitely say I've never heard a version of "Yesterday" that's remotely as interesting as the Beatles original. However, "Summertime" seems to be open to infinite interpretations. Obviously, there can't be 4000 equally excellent recordings, but there might be 100 or so that deserve notice.

I don't know what they are, but I'm gonna try to find out. Starting with a few personal faves in the next few days, I'm going to explore the intricacies of "Summertime" this summer on the blog. It'll be an open thought process, and I would love to hear your views on the subject as we go along, especially if you can point me to some cool versions I would otherwise not find.

For now, though, just contemplate the lyrics:

Summertime,
And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

Your daddy's rich
And your mamma's good lookin'
So hush little baby
Don't you cry

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky

But till that morning
There's a'nothing can harm you
With daddy and mamma standing by

Summertime,
And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

Your daddy's rich
And your mamma's good lookin'
So hush little baby
Don't you cry

As I understand it (and mind you, I've never seen "Porgy and Bess" nor even listened to a full performance of the show), the first use of this song is as a lullabye, and it occurs in other instances as counterpoint to more dramatic situations. So, even in its original context, it was offering multiple meanings, ranging from bringing comfort to a baby to ironic and nostalgic juxtaposition in a troubled relationship.

I'm hoping to find out more about the origins of the song, and its development into such a perpetual standard, during the course of the summer. Stay tuned.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Steve. Yeah, there's a lotta mystery in the words and melody of this song. I think the version that really got me at first was by Sam Cooke w/ those eery background female falsetto vocals behind it.
Recently heard a cool version by the Zombies - from "Decca Stereo Anthology".
I really haven't heard too many people mess this one up..
Spencer

tonpatti said...

Many favorites of this song, but Eddie Jeffereson's exuberant extended vocalese version recorded on "The Main Man". He skips, jumps and dances through it. Perhaps one of the jazz masters around your shop would know which instrumental version it is based on, since Eddie made his career on singing words to jazz solos.

Brian Marston said...

My favorite version is the one by Bobby Womack and The Roots. It's on "Red Hot + Rhapsody: The Gershwin Groove."