Artscape: Re-imagining Gershwin, 'Porgy & Bess' and African-American Influence

Feb 22, 2018

In the summer of 1934, George Gershwin was staying in a cottage on Folly Island, South Carolina, working on his folk opera "Porgy and Bess." 

Gershwin had been inspired to compose the opera by the novel "Porgy" by white Charlestonian Dubose Heyward. The novel tells the story of black residents of Catfish Row in Charleston. 

Heyward, Gershwin and Gershwin's brother, Ira, collaborated to transform the novel into what would eventually be recognized as one of the most important American musical accomplishments of the 20th century. 

Surrounding Gershwin during his stay in South Carolina were pockets of the vibrant African-American culture of the Gullah. These were once enslaved people who clung to their geographic location and developed an isolated sense of community, thus preserving much of their original African cultural heritage.

The Gullah culture may have had a strong effect on Gershwin as he composed his opera, although just how much can never be known. No credit was ever given to the Gullah by Gershwin or anyone else involved in in the project. This has given rise to an ongoing controversy over "Porgy and Bess."  

Brooklyn-based music producer and composer Melvin Gibbs can trace his father's side of the family back to the Gullah of South Carolina. He brings that personal connection to the conversation about "Porgy and Bess". Music critic Larry Blumenfeld is also based in Brooklyn and writes for The Wall St. Journal, Village Voice and other publications.