Socialist Worker

Porgy and Bess: Gershwin’s exploration of the Deep South’s racism

by Jane Trainer
Issue No. 1969

Porgy and Bess
George and Ira Gershwin
On tour in Malvern, Liverpool, Lowestoft, Birmingham, York and Bournemouth

Everyone knows at least one song from Porgy and Bess. Classics such as Summertime and I Loves you Porgy have been interpreted by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and Willard White.

George Gershwin and his brother Ira composed over two dozen scores, often incorporating black folk music and jazz styles.

Despite being described as “a man who was famous for being apolitical”, George Gershwin’s political leanings were indicated in some of his works. Anthony Arblaster, in his book Viva la Liberta, Politics in Opera describes the musical Strike Up the Band as an anti-war satire.

George wrote Porgy and Bess after reading DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and realised immediately that it would make a great “folk opera” infusing blues and jazz elements with symphonic writing.

The book was based on recollections of DuBose Heyward’s childhood in Charleston, South Carolina. It recalled two specific events — a violent murder and the 1911 hurricane which killed 17 people.

The story focuses on the lives of the inhabitants of Catfish Row, centered on the love story between the two main characters, both of whom are victims of the ignorance and exploitation created by racial oppression.

Some black artists criticised the work, believing it to portray black communities in too negative a light. Duke Ellington stated “no Negro could possibly be fooled by Porgy and Bess”.

Paul Robeson, who Gershwin asked to play the roll of Porgy, having written the part with his voice in mind, refused the role.

Given the context in which it was written this is understandable. In later years however both Ellington and Robeson recorded Gershwin’s music because he had played a role in putting black artists in the mainstream theatres.

Porgy and Bess is now heard in venues all over the world, championed by black intellectuals and musicians such as those I have mentioned.

They believe it to be an exploration of the humiliation suffered by those living in black communities in America who are denied the equal rights and resources they deserve. A situation felt equally today as then.


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Sat 24 Sep 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1969
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