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Rev. Joey N. Welsh:
Stars, dogs, and a bit of Gershwin

Another Angle. Stars, dogs, and a bit of Gershwin was first published 6 August 2006 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Life-long learning and fullness of appreciation

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Stars, dogs, and a bit of Gershwin

We now are in the dog days of summer. These days from mid-July and into August usually are the hottest and stickiest of the season. These are the days when weather conditions can suck out your energy and leave you soaked with sweat before you even begin a task outdoors.

Biblical writers knew all about this kind of environment. The psalmist compared the misery of carrying an unconfessed and unforgiven sin to the debilitating distress of a sweltering day. The beginning of Psalm 32 reads:

  1. Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.

  2. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.

  3. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

  4. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
To the psalmist the experience of forgiveness was like a cool breeze and a cold, refreshing drink. For people stuck in the dog days of summer, air conditioning and swimming pools are coveted as sources of relief. In the summer of 2006 the news told of people and cattle in California who have died in daytime temperatures exceeding 110 degrees as well as folks in St. Louis and New York City who have borne summer heat during major power outages. Compared to that, these dog days in Kentucky have been gentle.

Why the dogs days are called the dog days

We know from experience what the dog days are, but do we know how they got their name? I used to think that it surely meant the time of year when dogs (who live without sweat glands and expel heat through their tongues) must pant in overdrive, nearly wearing their tongues out in an effort to cool down. I was wrong.

The dog days got their name in ancient times. For several millennia folks have looked up to the night sky and imagined creatures and objects whose shapes take their outlines from "connecting the dots" among groups of stars. People named these groups of stars, or constellations, for big and little bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor), a bull (Taurus), and even big and little dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor). I never could see for myself that the constellations were like creatures, though I did enjoy finding the Big Dipper. The "big dog" constellation -- Canis Major -- contains the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. Sirius is most obvious in these parts in the cold of winter; look toward the southern sky some chill, clear evening.

Sirius is so bright that the ancients thought that it heated the earth, though not as much as the sun. During the summer months in the northern hemisphere Sirius is not seen in the night sky, because it rises and sets at about the same time as the sun. Folks believed that it was the heat of Sirius added to the heat of the sun that made summer so darned hot. Those days when Canis Major was in the sky at the same daylight hours as the sun became known as the dog days.

Songs about being hot

This year the dog days in July weren't too vicious; we'll see what August brings. This time of year does remind me of some songs from American musical theatre. "Too Darned Hot," written by Cole Porter for Kiss Me Kate expresses the discomfort of the season without providing much relief. In the meantime, let's find some comfort in some other words written for the dog days.In the fall of 1935 a landmark musical production, often described as a folk opera, opened on Broadway. Porgy and Bess, based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, told the story of a disabled African-American man (Porgy) who sought to save his love (Bess) from the predatory characters found in Catfish Row, a fictional neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina. The story takes place in the humidity of a Charleston summer.

Music was by George Gershwin. Lyrics and dialogue were by Ira Gershwin and Heyward. Though its initial Broadway run was brief, Porgy and Bess is now viewed as a pivotal work of American musical drama. In its own day it was groundbreaking in several ways. It cast was African-American. When the touring company reached Washington D.C. the cast and crew protested the policy of the National Theatre that the audience had to be segregated.

The theatre relented, and audiences were allowed seating without regard to race. (This was four years before soprano Marian Anderson was denied use of Constitution Hall by the DAR because of her race, famously singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for that venue.)

Rising up singing

The first song in Porgy and Bess is a lullaby set in the dog days. It is a comforting piece that is woven into later portions of the story as well. As we move through the dog days of this summer, let's look for whatever relief we can find, even in words of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess.
Summertime and the living is easy,
Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.
Oh your daddy's rich, and your ma is good looking,
So hush, little baby, don't you cry.

One of these mornings you're going to rise up singing,
Then you'll spread your wings and you'll take the sky.
But till that morning, there's a-nothin' can harm you
With Daddy and Mammy standing by.

Have a good summer as the dog days begin to dwindle down at last.


Editorial Note: In New York City in 2006 forty heat stroke deaths resulted from the July 27th to August 5th heat wave.

This story was posted on 2010-07-25 09:31:55
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