During the summer of 1934, renowned American composer and pianist George Gershwin rented a cottage on Folly Beach while working with Charleston author DuBose Heyward to compose the music for the internationally acclaimed opera “Porgy and Bess,” based on Heyward’s 1925 novel “Porgy.” It tells the sad tale of Porgy, a crippled African American beggar and his relationships with Bess and others who lived in the black tenements of Charleston.
Heyward had been strongly urging Gershwin to come and spend a working vacation in the area so he could observe the Gullah customs of the Lowcountry and draw inspiration.
Gershwin eventually acquiesced, arriving by train in Charleston in mid-June 1934 with his cousin, the painter, Henry Botkin. He stayed in a beachfront cabin near Dubose and his wife Dorothy’s home, that the author had dubbed “Follywood.”
A lot has changed since Gershwin’s Folly. There was no bridge a the time and they even had to bring their own drinking water because there was no fresh water on Folly at the time. 1930s Folly reminded Gershwin of a “battered South Seas Island.” But he loved it intensely, as is reflected in letters he sent to a friend describing the experience:
“This place is different from any place I’ve seen or lived in before . . . it’s been hard for me to work here as the wild waves, playing the role of the siren, beckon me every time I get stuck which is often and I, like a weak sailor, turn to them causing many hours to be knocked into a thousand useless bits.”
It didn’t take long for Gershwin to go “native” and embrace the laid back Folly lifestyle. At one point, Gershwin even agreed to become a judge for the 1934 Miss Folly Beach Contest held at the pier. He also managed to find time to attend swanky Charleston parties where his piano playing made him a big hit with guests.
Gershwin became enamored of the local Gullah culture to which he was introduced. Heyward made arrangements for Gershwin to attend negro spirituals at a black church on James Island where he witnessed the traditional hand clapping, foot stomping and swaying movements that accompanied them. These experiences provided him the creative spark he needed.
“Porgy and Bess” debuted on Broadway in 1935. Gershwin’s summer Folly experience was later turned into a play written by Julian Wiles called “Gershwin at Folly.” It tells the musical story of Gershwin’s “1934 Folly Beach sojourn” in which Heyward introduced him to the “sights and sounds of South Carolina’s rich Gullah culture.”
Gershwin’s cottage washed away during a hurricane in 1938. However, Botkin painted a watercolor sketch of the cottage, so we at least have an idea of what it looked like. Thankfully, the Heyward’s restored Follywood home still stands today.
You can also visit the Charleston Museum in downtown Charleston to see the piano that Gershwin used to write the music for “Porgy and Bess.”