“Summertime and the livin’ is easy...”
I sing that song a lot. Ask my family. If they can get past the trauma flashbacks, they’ll be glad to tell you just how often I sing that particular song.
What they may not realize is why I love it so much. It’s a beautiful song, an American classic, and allows full advantage to the range and power of my voice.
And while I like it for that, I love it for the irony. Because let’s face it – the song is nonsense.
What pops into my head as soon as I think about summertime is the hog house that sat across the driveway just to the west of the old farmhouse where I grew up.
In the southeast corner of the old shed was a hydrant.
Some of you come from warmer climates or urban areas and frost proof hydrants might not mean much to you. I remember walking behind a house in the green and lovely countryside of Jamaica and stumbling across a white plastic pipe delivering water, strung right on top of the ground. In my part of the world, you bury water pipes eight feet deep if you want them to not freeze, and the way that water gets into an unheated building is through a hydrant. It’s just a long pipe with a valve at the bottom that’s opened by a lever at the top. When you shut the lever, the water in the pipe drains out the bottom and there is nothing to freeze and break. It’s not particularly complicated, but over time, things go wrong.
Oddly enough, hydrants either fail on the coldest or hottest day of the year. It might even be a law.
Then you dig them up.
I’ve done that a dozen times over the years, usually with a backhoe. But this summertime was back in the 1960s, when the cost of hiring a man with a backhoe was real money. Luckily, we already had a spade. I was in my early teens and that day my job was standing at the top of the hole, emptying the buckets of sticky, wet, clay my father handed up. I vividly remember how the sweat poured into my eyes, a wet and salty misery.
And I had the easy part of the job.
Did I mention it was summertime? Nothing easy about that day.
Digging up that broken hydrant so a hundred hogs didn’t die of thirst is my clearest summertime memory, but we haven’t delved into baling hay, where the low man on the totem pole got to be the top man in the hay mow, shoving the last bale in right under a roof too hot to touch. Then there’s changing sickle sections while sitting on prickly wheat stubble as storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and still more, many more, memories.
“Summertime” was written by George Gershwin. George grew up in New York, where all he knew of hydrants was the ones he played in on the streets, and the closest bale of hay was in a stable near Central Park. The lyrics were by DuBose Heyward, who did grow up in South Carolina, but his family didn’t work on plantations, they owned them. So, while I’m sure in South Carolina there are plenty of fish jumping and the cotton does get high in the summertime, it wasn’t the sweat of Mr. Heyward’s brow that brought the harvest in.
I’m not sure what the lesson is here. Possibly that you can write a great song without having the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Or maybe it’s something else. I dunno.
But I’ll keep singing, and deep down inside, I’ll be smiling while I do.
Copyright 2022 Brent Olson