The scene is the annual 4th of July Celebration, coming to you live from the National Mall in Washington DC, or from Downtown St. Louis, or Chicago, or Los Angeles–it hardly matters where. The singer is introduced, and she takes the stage. She is white, or black, she is young, or old, she is a seasoned Broadway star, an acclaimed coloratura soprano, a newly-minted pop star–again, it hardly matters. She picks up the microphone, seems to grow misty; the orchestra strikes a somber A-minor chord, the singer draws a breath and sings:
Suuuuuummertiiiime . . . and the livin’ is easy . . .
Yes, again. Just like the singer at this event last year, and the year before, and the year before. As if there is only one song in the entire God-forsaken Great American Songbook with the word ‘summer’ in it. Oh sure, it’s a pretty song: it’s Gershwin, after all, music by George, lyrics by Ira, with supplemental lyrics by Dubose Heyward. That may explain why the lyrics to many of the songs in Porgy & Bess, the opera the song comes from, rise above the usual too-clever-by-half smarminess that characterizes so much of Ira Gershwin’s output. I can only imagine if Ira had written the words by himself. We’d get something more like:
It’s summer in this clime, and though I’m in my prime, I believe that I’m
hearing someone cry . . .
Summertime is a nice song, but couldn’t we just once in a while sing something different? I think singers perform it out of laziness; they want something classic and appropriate, and most human beings have heard this song often enough that they could sing it in their sleep. It’s like singing Amazing Grace at funerals: why bother learning a new hymn? I already know this one.
Yeah, I’ve been in a bad mood for much of this summer, and so have a lot of people around me. It has been a horrendously hot and rainless season. We will all be happy to see it gone. But here’s the thing: it’s still August.
I’ve been browsing other blogs related to nature and to the seasons. I find one person after another rhapsodizing about the coming autumn, about sitting by the fire, about autumn leaves, about donning the warm fuzzies and warming the spiced cider. Come on guys. Where I live, some of the worst dog days of summer come in the first half of September. I’ve seen temperatures in the nineties in October–especially lately, given the global warming that’s not happening.
This hurrying of the autumn season I account to a few factors. First, if you ask people to name a favorite season, autumn is the most popular. Spring runs a close second, but we humans, warm-blooded mammals who developed as a modern species in the Ice Age, feel most at home in the transition from hot to cool weather. Second, we want to see this summer gone. Some people are saying that the summer seems to have just flown by. Where did it go? The answer is nowhere, it’s still right here, still grilling your gardens and melting your sidewalks, and the observation that the summer has somehow magically passed in a trice is pure wishful thinking. Summer is the longest season, averaging over 93 days. Don’t count it out quite yet.
It’s also a bit of wishful thinking that ‘the livin’ is easy’ in summertime. Sure, food is abundant in summer, clothing is light, shelter is minimal. Recent studies have shown that we humans are even more amorously inclined in summer than at other times of the year. But for millions of householders, summer adds a whole new slate of lawn care activities, not the least of which is cutting the grass: an extremely unpleasant task when the temperature is in the nineties and the humidity is high. And when summer temperatures are regularly killing people in our major cities, you know that’s just too much summer. The weather front that has camped out over the entire midsection of the United States for the past eight weeks or so needs to move on.
But of course it’s the sentiment in those first lines that makes the song resonate with listeners. Like there’s some easy-going, not-too-hot season with a plate of catfish in front of us, a rich dad and a pretty mom, and all we have to do is kick back and enjoy it. Yeah, that’s nice, even if it’s not true. Even if it’s really part of the myth making that surrounds the seasons. Like the springtime of young love, or the not too cold winter covered in deep, not too slippery snow, the kind that doesn’t stop our gift-laden horse-drawn sleigh from pulling up in front of Grandma’s house, all redolent of cinnamon and peppermint and Frazer fir.
Maybe next summer won’t be as hot, as rainless. I’ll feel better about all of this nostalgia, readier to accept simple musings about the seasons, my mind uncluttered by realities, or at least more able to set them aside for a moment. I may enjoy simple things like the annual 4th of July Celebration on the National Mall, and no matter what rude beast currently slouches towards Washington–whether it’s Sondra Radvanovsky or Ke$ha–to offer one more rendition of Summertime, I’ll be ready to sit back and let the sentiment wash over me.