June 13, 2013
Sportin’ Life was right, but what about that Torah tune?
Sportin’ Life, the dope peddling conman who lived on Catfish Row in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina -- at least in the musings of George and Ira Gershwin and writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward -- never did delve deeply into higher Biblical criticism. He probably never even heard about seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, or late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century scholar Julius Wellhausen, for that matter. And yet, he hit the nail on the head, didn’t he?
Singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the most famous tune in Porgy and Bess after “Summertime,” Sportin’ Life chided, even taunted, the more reverent and traditionally minded folks on Catfish Row about some familiar but not so credible Biblical stories such as “li’l David” slaying big Goliath, Jonah making his home in a whale’s abdomen, and Methuselah living nine hundred years (actually 969, but who’s counting). And to underscore his point, Sportin’ Life would sing:
"It ain’t necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. De t’ings dat yo li’ble/ To read in de Bible/ It ain’t necessarily so."
Now Sportin’ Life could have gone further. Putting aside for the moment the stories about divine beings mating with human females (see Genesis 6:1-4) and winged creatures with multiple faces and a single leg (see Ezekiel 1:4-9), each of which can be forgiven as fanciful excesses in the name of literary license, the Bible contains a number of statements which are not factually accurate or at least are anachronisms. Two examples illustrate the situation:
Obviously if Sportin’ Life really got into it, Porgy and Bess would be an even longer production than it is, and considerably duller. So Sportin’ Life stuck to a few of the better known and easier to understand stories.
And then he did something quite amazing. To convey his point that the Bible was not error free, Sportin’ Life sang his famous refrain to what sounds like a Jewish melody -- and not just any melody at that. The melody that Sportin’ Life seems to have used is essentially the same as that commonly invoked for the blessing before the reading of the Torah portion: Bar’chu et Adonai Ham’vorach (Bless Adonai the blessed One).
Of course, George and Ira Gershwin, who wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, for Sportin’ Life, were familiar with Jewish musical themes and motifs. The Gershwins were products of, if not a religious family, at least an intensely Jewish community on the lower east side of New York City at the turn into the twentieth century. And while George may not have had a bar mitzvah, older brother Ira did, and George, as well as Ira must have been familiar with the melody for the Torah blessing.
According to two Gershwin biographers, the music of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” came before the lyrics. (See Howard Pollack, George Gershwin His Life and Work (2006) at 576; Walter Rimler, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait (2009) at 145.) So how and why did the melody for the Torah blessing get paired with the subversive lyrics about the errancy of the Bible? Even given the musical melting pot that boiled in New York City in the first third of the twentieth century in America, surely this conflation could not be mere coincidence. Song writing at the Gershwin level was too precise an art to allow for that possibility.
Were the Gershwins taking another, more subtle stab, at tradition by using sacred music for sacrilegious thought? Or were they saying quite the opposite? That while we can poke fun at the myths of our heritage, we still know our roots, we still understand the core values of our people and we still remember their practices.
Biographies of George Gershwin and at least one seems to be published every year, typically spend very little, if any, time talking about his use of Jewish melodies. And at least one writer discounts the Jewish elements in George Gershwin’s melodies. In response to the evidence some see in the use of minor 3rds, Rodney Greenberg argues that “to be really Jewish” a song would need augmented 2ds, as, for instance, in Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man.” Greenberg contends that some are just hearing what they want to hear. (See Rodney Greenberg, George Gershwin (1998) at 191.)
More recently, University of Houston music professor Howard Pollack has published the most extensive and thorough George Gershwin biography to date. Among its over 700 pages of text and over 100 pages of endnotes is what appears to be a robust, if not exhaustive, catalog of Gershwin’s use of liturgical and other Jewish themes. (See Pollack, above, at 42-47.) A decade before Porgy, George Gershwin acknowledged that “traditional Hebrew religious melodies have had a marked influence upon modern music . . . .” (Id. at 42; see also Larry Starr, George Gershwin (2011) at 179 n.2.) The continued use of such melodies over time strongly suggests that we are not simply hearing what we want to hear. (See Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That (1993) at 236-37, 248.)
Barely a handful of years before Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company to write an opera based on Szymon Ansky’s The Dybbuk (a wandering disembodied spirit), itself derived from an old folk tale. He even began to create some music for the work. (See Rimler, above, at 40.) The effort failed because certain rights could not be obtained.
It is possible, then, that George Gershwin just wanted to include in his American opera a melody that he had planned to use on the aborted Dybbuk project. After all, both Catfish Row and the old country shtetl were communities that were financially poor, politically oppressed and rooted in cultural and religious traditions. And yet, it is one thing to use Jewish ritual music in a work about a fictionalized Jewish community and quite another to collaborate with a descendant of Southern aristocracy and slave holders like DuBose Heyward to write about a black community and incorporate a sacred Jewish melody into that work.
Mordecai Kaplan, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the last century, reportedly tried to dispense with the rendition of Kol Nidre which immediately precedes the evening service for Yom Kippur, but ultimately failed to do so in large part because of the emotional power of the melody that accompanies the reading. Perhaps the same was true of the Gershwins, creators of quintessentially American music. Perhaps something like that musical pull was at work here, in the sense that while the Gershwins could stay out of shul, the shul still stayed in the Gershwins. Perhaps their use of the Torah blessing theme was their homage to their heritage. Unfortunately, unless someone discovers a letter to one of their contemporaries like Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen or Oscar Levant or, perhaps, an entry in a diary, we may never know what the Gershwins had in mind.
We do know, however, that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was an enormously powerful piece. In 1943, with the second World War raging, Porgy and Bess made its European debut in Copenhagen at the Royal Danish Opera. Not surprisingly, the Nazis were not enamored with the production of a show written by Jews and about blacks. (Apparently, they did not give much credit to the DuBoses.) Despite the efforts of Hitler’s thugs to shut the show, it was successful in Denmark, and ran in repertory into the Spring of 1944. By then, though, the Nazis had had enough, and the Luftwaffe was threatening to bomb the Royal Opera unless production ended, which it then did.
Though George had died in July, 1937, the Gershwins would not be silenced. In response to Goebbel’s propaganda, the Danish resistance, bless ‘em, would interrupt enemy broadcasts with those wonderful words (in Danish) to that very special tune: It Ain’t Necessarily So! It Ain’t Necessarily So! It Ain’t Necessary So! (See Robin Thompson, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (2006) at 160; Rimler, above, at 171.)
Some may consider this conveyance of truth to power, by way of a sacred chant in a most unconventional manor and setting, to be a minor proof of the existence of God. And some may not.
Regardless, we should all be able to agree: S’Wonderful. S’Marvelous.
Who could ask for anything more?
Another version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.