Summer is the most sensual time of year. Warm weather and sunny skies evoke feelings of joy and carefreeness. Birds twittering in lush green parks and bees buzzing around flower-filled gardens make us feel like teenagers in love again. Released at last from the dark days of winter and the dank, cool weeks of spring, summer makes our hearts sing -- and our voices, too!
Hundreds of songs have been written and sung about this blissful, happy-go-lucky season. Sly & The Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is practically a meta-melody for summer, along with “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran, anything by the Beach Boys, and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” to name a few. And way out at the far end of the summer music spectrum is Alice Cooper’s mob-baiting anthem “School’s Out,” that heart-pounding fave of students (and many teachers) everywhere.
Of all the summer-vibe tunes ever written and performed, however, three stand out for their unique take on the season.
Sumer Is Icumen In
“Sumer Is Icumen In” (also called “Summer Cannon”” or Cuckoo Song”) is the oldest known song written in English as well as the first known song ever penned about the joyous, verdant season of summer. It was composed in Oxford about 1260, probably by English composer W. [William] de Wycombe. The song is written as a round for six voices. The catchy tune describes the happiness of summertime with the singing of a cuckoo, gardens and meadows springing to life, and the ebullience of various farm animals, including a farting goat. The song is performed here by Lumina Vocal Ensemble.
Fast-forward 700 years when a whole new paean to summer began bouncing out of transistor radios on city stoops, rooftops and beaches all around the U.S. The gleeful doo-wop earworm, “Summertime, Summertime,” sung by a virtually unknown Boston group called The Jamies, ushered in the feel-good season in 1958 and again on rerelease in 1963 when it scored high both times on Billboard’s Top 100 tunes.
Written by Tom Jameson, the start-up group practiced the a capella tune nearly every day for months until Tom, a perfectionist, was satisfied that it was demo-ready. Copies of the single were delivered to local DJs who played the song at area record hops. Within two months, the uplifting song was picked up by Epic Records -- it took off like a July Fourth rocket and The Jamies became overnight sensations.
Bruce Springsteen considers “Summertime, Summertime” the quintessential summer song; "It always signaled the beginning of summer for me, in its baroque joy, and I always loved hearing it for the first time, each summer. It meant summer was on!” Oddly enough, the buoyant single has a fugue-like flavor that is similar to “Sumer Is Icumen In.”
Though one of the most memorable songs ever written about summer, it was The Jamies’ one and only hit and the group itself soon faded into the mists of AM radio history. But their joyful one-hit-wonder lives on.
No less than Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson, and Sam Cooke, among many others, have covered George Gershwin’s soulful lullaby “Summertime” written for his 1934 opera “Porgy and Bess.” But of them all, Janis Joplin’s fire-breathing, emotional rendition wrenches every ounce of bluesy rock out of it from the depths of her very being. Her performances of it practically levitate audiences in mid-air.
Janis was once quoted as saying, “If I hold back, I’m no good.” She holds absolutely nothing back in this 1969 live performance recorded in Stockholm, backed by her Big Brother & The Holding Company band playing their masterful arrangement. This version of the Gershwin classic, as unlikely as it is, has become one of the melody’s most iconic interpretations.
Photo by EYÜP BELEN