1 Jovenel Jeanty Professor Allen American Folklore November 23, 2009

Porgy and Bess arrived on the scene when racial segregation was still widely practiced throughout the United States. Porgy and Bess deputed in 1935 as an “American folk opera” which led some to question whether or not the opera could be considered folk. The folk authenticity of the Porgy and Bess opera by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward has been debated by critics for many years. There is a lot of controversy that surrounds Porgy and Bess, since it is projected to be an "authentic" depiction of the African-American folk tradition but is written by a Jewish composer. I believe that George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were successful in creating an American opera. As for creating an “American folk opera” they did not achieve overwhelming success due to their limited exposure to the daily life of black folks in Charleston. It is unimaginable to think that by spending a few weeks or months with a particular folk group anyone would be able to truly grasp the Gullah’s folklore. In fact when Gershwin went down to Folly Island his intentions may have not been to grasp the authentic folklore of the folks in Charleston but merely to get a sense of how he can display this newfound item to his audience. Richard Crawford in a 1972 article states “Like the white black-face minstrel, the Broadway composer feels no obligation toward the authenticity of the material works. His goal is entertainment, not preservation, and whatever he comes across is grist for his mill” (Crawford, 27). I don't think when Gershwin went down south his intent was to get a detail analysis of the folklore within the community. Crawford goes on to state “Gershwin did, of course, travel to Charleston to hear authentic music in its original setting, but there is no sign that he was interested in it on its own terms. The task was for him to convert his aural

2 impressions to his terms” (Crawford, 27). In some ways that is exactly what Gershwin did. Just like the novel, the opera consisted of a crippled Negro beggar (Porgy), murderer (Crown), dope-pusher (Sporting Life) and a prostitute named Bess. These are the main characters and the story takes place in Catfish Row, a largely black town in Charleston, South Carolina. The fact that the main characters of Porgy and Bess were what many considered the bottom feeders of the social order led to the criticism of the opera. Many critics saw Porgy and Bess as reinforcing racial stereotypes. Displaying to mostly a white audience Porgy and Bess was seen as taking part in the continuation of the prevailing notions surrounding Blacks during the time. Critics of Porgy and Bess felt that the novel, play, and opera, representing a population displaying a community with rampant drug use, crime, poverty, and prostitution, only strengthened negative stereotypes that would most likely lead to deeper prejudice and clashes. The characters of the opera were seen collectively as a group who dealt with drugs, peddlers and unable to control themselves. The inability to control oneself is displayed by the character Crown. Crown is described in Act One of the opera as being belligerent who is “plied with drinks from the local dealer in alcohol and drugs, Sporting Life” (Act 1 Scene 1, Porgy and Bess). There were no doctors, lawyers (except for the one who tried to sell Porgy a divorce even though Bess was not married to Crown) or any blacks with an occupation considered praiseworthy. Where are the characters that represented upward mobility? These were some of the questions raised by critics, especially those who were black. Porgy and Bess can be considered a one-sided portrayal of Negro life. DuBose and Heyward completely left out another part of Charleston. W.E.B. DuBois summed up this concept when he wrote “Charleston has 35,000 persons of Negro descent. They include not only pitiful and terrible figures-beggars, drunkards and prostitutes- but self-supporting and self-respecting laborers and servants, artisans and merchants, professional men and housewives” (Dubois, The Crisis). Those who were part of the black middle class were not unanimously favorable to the

work. Era Bell Thompson in an article states “We do not want to see six foot Sidney Poitier on his knees crying for a slit-skirted wench who did him wrong. We


do not want the wench to be beautiful Dorothy Dandridge who sniffs “happy dust” and drinks liquor from a bottle at the rim of an alley crap game.....We do not want to see them crawl even in make believe dust after they have walked with their heads in the clouds”(Crawford, 32). Though this statement was made in 1959 the same argument could be made for the all-black cast in the original Porgy and Bess opera. The all-black cast is another issue. Many argue that the presence of a black cast delivered some kind of authenticity. The black cast was all northerners who had little or no relationship to those in the south. Even though the cast is included they had no other role in the production of the opera. The plot and the music came from someone who was not of the same background. Ray Allen writing in the Journal of American Folklore 117 wrote “In a harbinger of things to come, African American critics were pleased at the attention the novel Porgy brought to southern folk culture, but raised doubts about the accuracy with which Heyward, as a white man, could portray their people” (Allen, 246). As stated in the previous statement there was some sentiment towards Gershwin and Heyward for their efforts at giving exposure to a hidden culture not known outside its realms. Gershwin and Heyward were not only able to bring attention to southern folk culture but they were able to replicate some folklore as well. A very distinct and unique characteristic of Porgy and Bess is the use of language and music of the Gullahs. The Gullah language is a Creole mixture of English and African languages. The songs in the Porgy and Bess opera were written and composed by George Gershwin, his wife Ida and DuBois Heyward. Can the songs be considered authentic if it was written and compose by outsiders? I think the

4 best you can get is a decent rendition. The two popular songs from the opera “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are examples of the decent renditions Gershwin and Heyward were able to form. When listening to the songs it’s very difficult to tell the background of the authors. It could’ve been done by anyone. The lyrics contain language that is similar to the Gullah’s language in Charleston, South Carolina. There are many others issues that can lead to the question of authenticity regarding Porgy and Bess. It is seen throughout It Ain't Necessarily So, one of the songs coming out from the opera. Lines such as “De t'ings dat yo' li'ble” or De debble's a villun are representative of the Gullah language. Gershwin's composed the folk songs. No one should expect the perfect replication of the Gullah language by someone who didn't regularly speak it. The replication doesn't hide the fact that Gershwin and Heyward were cultural outsiders. The cultural aspects of the Charleston community were given their own interpretation by Gershwin and Heyward, and then displayed to an audience who most likely had very little exposure to African American lifestyle. Many critics believed that the only way African American folklore can be correctly captured and projected out is if it done by those who are entrenched in the folk culture. Critic Hall Johnson sums it up best by writing “So that our [African-American] folkculture is like the growth of some hardy, yet exotic, shrub, whose fragrance never fails to delight discriminating nostrils even when there is no interest in the depths of its roots. But when the leaves are gathered by strange hands they soon wither, and when cuttings are transplanted into strange soil, they have but a short and sickly life. Only those who sowed the seed may know the secret at the root” (Allen, 252). The controversy stemming from the designation of Porgy and Bess as an “American Folk Opera” shows how the subject of race continues to flare up today.

Through all this excitement Porgy and Bess, whether label an opera or folk opera has become a cultural piece. Though the black cast was not related to those the opera was actually base on, one should admire Gershwin and Heyward for giving African American singers a rare opportunity to take the main stage. Gershwin could’ve made it easier by calling Porgy and Bess an opera but in his mind it was a folk opera. As future folklorist, musicologist and critics we’re left to decide.


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