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American Routes Shortcuts: Gershwin's "Summertime"

George Gershwin
American Routes

This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we bask in the summer heat and listen to our favorite versions of the George Gershwin classic, “Summertime,” from the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess.

Nick Spitzer: It is one of the most covered tunes in the American Songbook, with over 30,000 renditions. “Summertime” was composed by George Gershwin and novelist DuBose Heyword in 1934, for the opera Porgy and Bess. To flesh out the scenes and sounds of the DuBose Heyword novel, the composer went into the field. Jeffrey Melnick.

Jeffrey Melnick: So what Gershwin decides to do is that he’ll take a research trip, and it’s a way for Gershwin to get some music written but also to drum up interest in what at the time was seen as a kind of shaky proposition, a folk opera about Gullah African Americans on the South Carolina Sea Islands.

NS: The show includes African American singers and actors, but remains controversial in how the culture is represented. Ultimately, Gershwin’s interpretations of blackness are reinterpreted by black performers.

NS: Billie Holiday and her orchestra 1936.

NS: Duke Ellington was not a fan of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Duke said it wasn’t an accurate representation of black life or music. But that didn’t stop him from recording songs from the opera. Duke took the bones of the melody, then added new flesh and spirit. Duke Ellington in 1956, featuring the trumpet of Cat Anderson.

NS: Sam Cooke in 1959, with one of my favorite takes.

NS: I wish George Gershwin could’ve heard soul man Billy Stewart’s eccentric, majestic “Summertime,” 1966. If there ever was a white all-American TV family in the 60s, it was the Nelsons, Ozzie and Harriet, with sons David and Ricky. Ricky Nelson was a California rocker. Who knew he worked with Shreveport, Louisiana guitarist James Burton, while singing the Gershwin classic.

NS: Gershwin himself said this, “The great music of the past has always been built on folk music. Jazz I regard as American folk music. Not the only one, but a very beautiful one, which is in the blood and feeling of the American people.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at