What Everyone Should Know About Summertime by George Gershwin


What Everyone Should Know About Summertime by George Gershwin

Summertime George Gershwin Speech WritingCapturing and engaging an audience quickly is vital if you want to persuade, inspire or make an impact when public speaking.  Many people know this, but how can you do it? How can you be the one who makes people sit up and listen, and more importantly, keep listening? The first thing when you are getting ready to ‘say a few words’ is don’t open PowerPoint – thats the #1 fatal mistake!

Crafting the words to make an impact takes time. It takes a blank piece of paper and a single clear idea that you want to communicate. It takes thinking through the words you will use to explain that point creatively. It takes crafting what Nancy Duarte calls a STAR (Something They Always Remember) moment. In this post I want to help you discover a unique way that you could try to gain attention the next time you speak in public.

Out on a Limb

In my latest Toastmasters speech (CC7) I wanted to speak about how music has a profound effect on our senses. It was risky. It was out on a limb. It would either work well or I would crash. I took the classic “Summertime” by George Gershwin, a song that pictures in our minds glorious sunshine breaking through the grey of early dawn. However, under all that imagined sunlight, the song points to a dark and disturbing story of indenture. The music impacts our emotions deeply.

I wrote the following speech but choreographed it to music. I practiced hard. (I am from the Lea Agnew school of thought on that one) Here is the speech, I hope you enjoy it. (BTW it won best speech of the night!)

Summertime, or is it?

“Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.”  Johnny Depp.

I heard a song played the other day that stopped me. It stopped me thinking, stopped me in my tracks. Then, after stopping me, the music itself transported me to another time and another place. It’s amazing how music can do that. Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.

Just a number of precise and measured sound waves collected and captured together can somehow work their power deep within. On researching the roots of the song, I was moved even deeper by the understanding how the simple sounding but yet complex chord structure of the notes, harmonies, melody and lyrics tell a dark and disturbing story. The song was “Summertime” by George Gershwin performed by Peter Gabriel and Larry Adler. Let me explain why. **(Start music playing)**

A False Image?

It’s Summertime. From the opening note the music seems to build a picture of the dawn of another humid and sultry day. The kind of day where the rising sun streaks through our windows full of optimism. Maybe its a sweaty hot urban Summer or the lazy Summers of our youth, but Adler’s haunting notes power our imagination that maybe a glorious Summer day is arriving.

It’s summertime. It’s the 1930s and George Gershwin is on the South Carolina coast. Picking up a book by DuBose Heyward, Gershwin is captivated by the story of Porgy, a crippled street-beggar in the black tenements in the 1920′s till 4:00 am. Here was a different world than the familiar Tin Pan Alley of New York. Here was different world of “Cat Fish Row” Charleston. Here was different world that 9 years later would become the folk opera Porgy and Bess.

It’s Summertime. Then, with a change of key, the opening cascading notes of the song transport us to this world of “catfish Row.” Over this simply melody comes the velvet voice of Peter Gabriel.

A Lullaby

Summertime, but the song is not really about the lazy, languid days of Summer, where living is easy, fish jumping and the cotton is high. Gershwin wrote the song, which is a lullaby, about a “Gullah,” a Black Slave woman rocking a white baby to sleep. As the rocking bass line sways back and forth, Gabriel’s optimistic proclamation  ‘your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin.’ But the stark reality, perhaps, was her own crying children would be hungry or more likely have been sold and to never have seen them again.

One of these mornings, speaks of the promise of a secure future singing with opportunity and security. How sad, how degrading must it have been be for black slaves to care for the children of white women knowing that their own children suffered want. Gershwin takes the imagery of the South and turns it into a richness of melody and harmony of chords. Turning the dark brick 3 story tenements into a place of peace and safety.

It’s claimed that Summertime is one of the most covered versions of any song and there are more than 130 commercially recorded versions of “Summertime.” Ella Fitzgerald’s lilting reflection on life’s possibilities. Billie Holiday placed the emphasis on “Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin’” in a sultry Dixieland rendition. Miles Davis, John Coltrain, Janice Joplin, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, and so the list goes on. For me, the smooth rich tones that Adler blows from the harmonica are like dripping melted chocolate off a hot spoon. Combine that with the explosive but controlled power of Gabriel’s voice and it makes a heady cocktail of emotion. It’s no wonder that it touches us in places where words alone can’t.

The Mystery of Six Notes

“Summertime” consists of only six notes; that’s part of its mystery. It’s an incredibly simple melody. But if you listen with your mind as well as your ears you can start feeling the heat of summer, feeling the yearning of a community, feeling the sadness and the pathos summed up with 6 notes.

Listening to the Adler/Gabriel version for me was, as Nina LaCour says, in her book, “Hold Still,” “It was the moment I realised what music can do to people, how it can make you hurt and feel so good all at once.”

Image by Stock.Xchng

If you have enjoyed this speech or would like to use some or all of it, please do! Just take a moment to write to me and let me know, it would be great to start a conversation with you!


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Posted on by Peter Billingham in Blog Posts, Creativity, Public Speaking, Speaking Opportunities

About Peter Billingham

Leader, Learner, Speechwriter, Storyteller, Author. a.k.a. 'The Artful Speaker' Enjoy working on social action projects, Toastmasters, films & adventure travel.

3 Responses to What Everyone Should Know About Summertime by George Gershwin

  1. Pingback: Could more than one thing stop you from memorable public speaking? | Leadership Speaker & Speech Writer

  2. William Benicio

    Dear Peter Billingham, I really liked your comments about summertime. I came here after listening just to the melody (summertime – Gerswin) without the voice, and it touched me so much that I decided to Google it and try to discover what I already knew: that like you, I wasn’t the only one…

    • Peter Billingham

      Hi William!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post – really appreciate that! Glad you liked the post and like me, more to the story than meets the eyes.

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