Here’s Ella Fitzgerald singing an amazing version of Summertime. Although this piece is a chestnut of American music, the first time I in fact heard it was on a strange beach in Odessa, Ukraine in 1999. I heard it for the first time while strolling about a beach, trying to kill time and contemplate the absurdities of my life. A lot was going on with me at the time: lots of uncertainties, lots of risks, lots of foolishness.
When living overseas, you frequently experience random regurgitations of Americana when you least expect it. Once on an Albanian street in 1996, I ran into a man wearing a Mondale/Ferraro 1984 T-shirt; in Nesebar, Bulgaria (an otherwise lovely place), I dined at a place that played nothing but Louis Armstrong songs 24 hours a day. Once at an outdoor sale of paintings on a central street in Donetsk, I ran into a man selling pirated cassettes of Talking Heads (a Texas alternative musical group).
When I heard Summertime on that Odessa beach, I was bored and lonely, trying to kill time; people were mobbing around, buying snacks, playing videogames and getting on carnival rides. And then I heard it–a woman singing a vaguely familiar song in an unfamiliar language (To this day, I still can’t figure out which language; either Fon or Yoruba is my best guess). The song was melancholy and totally out-of-place in this carefree vacation resort that up until now had playing mindless techno songs. A woman was singing a capella with a chorus; the speakers were blaring it out into the mini-amusement park. The melody sounded distinctly American, but the words were undecipherable–or should I have listened more carefully? The musical notes ached in my heart then, and it still does today.
Years later, I learned the singer was Angelique Kidjo, singing her own riff on a George Gershwin song. Ironically, in Odessa, I had no idea that it was a lullaby about summertime, an attempt to provide comfort in the sweltering summertime, a cautionary note about the future (and all its surprises). Summer is fun, but it also is a bitch; it is a time to put your guard down, a time to run yourself out on foolish dreams and leisure, a time to forget obligations and sorrows. Some use summer as an excuse for unrepentant leisure; others seek refuge from the terrible heat. Winter isn’t much better, but at least it doesn’t raise hopes).
Here’s a listing of other versions of Summertime). Here is the Anjelique Kidjo recording–whom incidentally I saw perform live at the Houston International Festival–though she didn’t perform this particular song. Imagine that–a singer from Benin singing a song which I first hear in Ukraine and later live in Houston. Who could have predicted? Art travels at light speeds.
(Update: also linked to the Ella Youtube link above are several contemporary covers of the same song. Some versions are terrible, but I just love this version of it! I just love the ability of the Internet to juxtapose the greats with the soon-to-be-greats).