Skip to comments.In Search of Gershwin’s Folly
Posted on 06/16/2012 9:44:38 PM PDT by nickcarraway
Summertime, and the livin was a little too easy for George Gershwin.
Even in the 1930s, Charleston could do that to you.
The American composer had come to town in June 1934 to write an opera based on local author DuBose Heywards novel Porgy. After flirting with the idea for years, it was time for Gershwin to finally sit down and put his ideas to music.
Eventually, his visit would inform a classic that is still popular more than 75 years later the revival of Porgy and Bess is up for 10 Tony Awards tonight.
But before Gershwin and Heyward could collaborate, Gershwin needed to immerse himself in Gullah culture. And the Lowcountry world he discovered nearly inhibited Gershwin as much as it inspired him.
This place is different from any place Ive seen or lived in before, Gershwin wrote to a friend, its been hard for me to work here as the wild waves, playing the role of siren, beckon me every time I get stuck which is often and I, like a weak sailor turn to them causing many hours to be knocked into a thousand useless bits.
The story of Gershwins summer in Charleston is local legend. He stayed at a beachfront cabin on Folly Beach that sat close to Heywards own, a two-story home that the author called Follywood.
It was a classic fish-out-of-water tale: the native New Yorker ensconced on an island with no bridge and one phone, a place where you had to carry in your own drinking water. Gershwin said 1930s Folly reminded him of a South Seas island.
But he had Siegling Music Hall deliver an upright piano, and went work. The Heywards served as hosts and tour guides.
He would come here to eat and socialize, said Katherine Glick, who now owns the Heywards beach house. He just had to walk through the woods to get here.
News and Courier reporter Frank Gilbreth, who later became famous as a novelist and columnist for the paper, found the Rhapsody in Blue composer enraptured.
I have never lived in such a back to nature place, Gershwin told Gilbreth. At home I get up about noon. Here I will get up every morning at 7 oclock well, at 7:30 oclock anyway.
When Gilbreth returned for an update 10 days later, he reported that Gershwin, gone native, finds it shame to work at Folly. By then the New Yorker was unshaven and bare-chested, and nearly tanned to black. He was enjoying himself hed found a Jewish deli on Folly, and took time to judge the Miss Folly Beach contest on the pier.
But by then the ideas were flowing. He talked to Gilbreth about the craps game scene, part of an opera that would be serious and dramatic.
In between his drives on the beach, and belting out ragtime on his rented piano, Gershwin had begun to investigate the Gullah and African-American culture of the Lowcountry.
He visited black churches on James Island. He sang spirituals with locals, and performed with the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, a group of white singers that preserved songs that might have otherwise never been written down.
I think he embraced the culture, said Julian Wiles, director of the Charleston Stage Company, who wrote the play Gershwin at Folly nearly a decade ago. He loved the sounds and rhythms of what he heard. But he didnt want to use any traditional folk music.
He was simply inspired by it. Gershwin also had a unique collaboration with Heyward, who was a poet as much as a novelist. While Gershwin normally wrote his music first and then his brother Ira supplied lyrics, Gershwin wrote much of his music around the lyrics written by Heyward.
In fact, even if the music for the classic Summertime wasnt written on Folly, the lyrics likely were.
The house that Gershwin stayed in was destroyed by a hurricane a few years after his visit, but Heywards Follywood survives. Today its called the Porgy House, and Glick offers tours by appointment. It looks almost exactly as it did when the Heywards owned it.
The Sieglings also saved Gershwins piano, and in 1974 turned it over to the Charleston Museum.
People come in here expecting to see Colonial artifacts and also find this its a popular piece, said Grahame Long, the museums curator of history. We keep it on display because of the importance of it.
It is now just another chapter of Charleston history.
I am a huge Gershwin fan and never knew this.
I always liked the tune “Summertime.” I had listened to the instrumental versions recorded by Artie Shaw and Bob Crosby for two decades, before I ever actually heard the lyrics. Tend to prefer it as an instrumental, probably due to this. Incredibly memorable tune, that never leaves you.
Agreed. nickcarraway has a record of posting very interesting material about our distinctive America culture: books, film and music. Must have something to do with his name? :-)
Thanks, Nick! Very interesting for us Gershwin fans!!
Thanks. Interesting. Sent to the musicians in the family who happen to be vacationing in Charleston right now.
Always wondered how a native New Yorker like Gershwin could write something like “Porgy & Bess”. Well, now we know that he immersed himself in the Gullah culture till he could write authentic tunes in that setting.
My favorite from that opera is “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Haunting & in a minor key. More Tin Pan Alley than Charleston, in my opinion.
Excellent post. Porgy & Bess is one of the great 20th century operas. I’ve come to like the American works of Weill also - Street Scene, Lost in the Stars, etc.
I too have always liked the instrumental “Summertime”. My favorite version is by Mantovani. I know...a lot of people look down their noses at him, but much of the reason I like it is sentimental. My father used to play Mantovani’s “Gems Forever” on his stereo back in the 50’s and 60’s, so it kind of takes me back to my childhood. That stereo BTW was a tube receiver made by Fisher that also made a great smell when running.
It is a wonderful tale and of course the songs are magnificent.
Play “Summertime” and then listen to the opening bars of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”
Gershwin’s Folly is still there - my husband, three small boys and I just left after a week on the beach. I am sure it is much different than 1934 but the waves have the same pull for me as it sounds like they did for Gershwin. You never want to leave....
What "American culture"? America has no "American culture", only a mix of interesting, foreign cultures.
/ faggot Democrat lisp
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