The "Porgy and Bess" movie soundtrack was one of my favorite albums during my childhood, frequently played on my father's 1960s-vintage cabinet hi-fi.
George Gershwin's "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "There's a Train That's Leavin' Soon for New York" have remained bright in my mind along with songs from another classic musical that brought joy to those long summer afternoons: "My Fair Lady."
While criticized through the years for racial condescension and stereotypes, Gershwin's opera remains a landmark musical achievement, mainly because of its classic songs. After an initial 124 performances on Broadway, the opera has risen in popularity, although a Broadway revival several years ago sputtered.
The 1959 film version, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge and directed by Otto Preminger, of all people, was a critical disappointment and quickly pulled from theaters because of the racial controversy and refusal of Southern theaters to book it.
"Porgy and Bess" takes place in Charleston's black community of "Catfish Row" during the 1920s, and I wanted to delve more into the opera's background during a recent trip to the old South Carolina port city.
My wishes were fulfilled by an excellent walking tour of downtown Charleston led by professor, historian and author Damon L. Fordham. With his encyclopedic knowledge of Charleston, Fordham detailed the rich history of virtually every inch of sidewalk covered. Titled a tour of black Charleston, the experience uncovered the intimate intertwining of black and white culture.
After beginning the tour with a soul-stirring harmonica rendition of "Summertime," Fordham eventually led us to the site of "Catfish Row," where a crippled street vendor named Samuel Smalls peddled his wares from a goat-pulled cart. The white novelist Dubose Heyward used Smalls as a model for the main character in his 1925 novel "Porgy," the basis for the opera. Along with others who've read the book, Fordham praised the novel as a literary work.
Heyward is given co-credit for the opera's libretto with Gershwin. Although he is often credited with writing the lyrics for "Summertime" and other songs, Gershwin's brother and regular partner Ira Gershwin also receives credit from ASCAP. Stephen Sondheim believes Heyward wrote "Summertime," and praises him for its haunting quality.
Close to Heyward's home, Catfish Row is now an upscale gated residence. Porgy's cries of "devil crab, devil crab" would cause today's wealthy residents to shudder. Fordham pointed out that the area, including nearby East Bay Street, was once the site of rough bars and prostitution until massive gentrification following Hurricane Hugo. Now, the area's tapestry of voices and personalities remains only in the opera and book.
While Gershwin and Heyward now would be accused of cultural appropriation, the opera's songs stand apart as testaments to the human spirit.