This song is sung in Act III, Scene II of Porgy and Bess.
Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics.
On opening night, John Bubbles, who played Sporting Life, surprised everybody by wearing a flashy emerald-green suit in this scene. As it happened, the zipper was not working and the entrance music had to be played three times before he came out—and then he was forced to sing this song with his back to the audience. Nevertheless, Bubbles' performance during the first run of this opera in the 1935-36 season was superb and is well-remembered.
The setting is Catfish Row on the afternoon of the day after Crown's death. A flurry of frenetic sixteenth notes ushers in an instrumental introduction—one that mainly consists of music first heard in Act I, Scene I.
The residents of Catfish Row are interviewed by the gruff, authoritarian detective (a white man) who is investigating Crown's murder. Serena's alibi for not having seen the killing is that she has been sick, and when she tells this to the detective a discordant snippet from “My Man's Gone Now”--her main aria—is quoted by the orchestra. Augmented chords are used to indicate her discomfort and they are used, in turn, to show the discomfort of everyone who speaks to the detective. Also effective in this recitativo section are the E-flat minor chords used for punctuation. They are tonally very distant from the keys of F-minor and F-sharp which otherwise dominate here (one of these E-flat minor chords can be heard just after Serena and the other women sing “Yes, boss, we swear to that”).
As Bess helps Porgy to his doorstep (it is their turn to be questioned) a full reading of the Porgy motive is played by the orchestra. Porgy is not suspected of being the murderer but he is, against his protests, taken into custody to identify Crown's body. Sporting Life tells Porgy that when a murderer confronts the body of his victim the dead man's wounds will bleed and give him away. Throughout this portion of the recitative, there is a development of Porgy's motive. When Bess advises Porgy to go with the detective but only pretend to look at Crown's body there is a development of the “I ain't never” portion of “Bess, You is My Woman Now.”
After Porgy is taken away, Sporting Life laughingly plays on Bess's despair. His musical expression is melodically and harmonically reminiscent of Gershwin's writing in the Rhapsody in Blue, with its insouciant melancholy (“Sister, that Porgy ain't going' be no witness now”). At one point (after “May be one year, may be two year, may be--”) Sporting Life makes a gesture indicating that Porgy might be hanged. Here the orchestra plays a weird C-ninth with a sixth and a flatted fifth.
As Sporting Life takes out some happy dust for Bess (“But cheer up sistuh”) there is a rhythmically nervous and very twisting, winding variation on the happy dust motive. Then, as Bess succumbs to temptation, the music is derived from the triplets of “It Ain't Necessarily So.”
“There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York” is a fifty-five bar song in AABA1 form. It is the B section (“I'll buy you de swellest mansion”) that takes it beyond a thirty-two bar format, in that this section is itself twenty-three bars long. Throughout it and the entire number are the slinky chromatic runs that characterize all of Sporting Life's music. At the conclusion of this song, a sprightly and joyful dancing figure is given to the xylophone. It, like the modal and bluesy notes of the melody, expresses the simple, amoral pleasure that Sporting Life takes in indulging in his scheme.
To a sequence based on the triplets of “It Ain't Necessarily So,” Bess tells Sporting Life to get away from her. Then she begins to reconsider his offer and we hear a discordant distortion of the opening bars of “Bess, You is My Woman Now.”
Sporting Life leaves the dope on Bess's doorstep and the slithering happy dust theme is played, followed by a maestoso orchestral reading of “There's a Boat.”
John Bubbles and other original cast members can be seen (but not heard) during rehearsals before the opening of the original production at:
Bubbles reprised his role in the early 1960s on an album of scenes from Porgy and Bess featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield. This album is a must for any fan of the opera.