Robin was giving me grief in the comments for having initially confused "Porgy and Bess" with "Showboat," which led me to start thinking about both musicals, which led me to an even better example of what I'm talking about.
Summertime. (And the livin' is easy.)
A standard of both American Idol contestants and New Orleans street musicians, this jazz classic was written by George Gershwin, a New York Jew, who based it on a Russian lullaby, for Porgy and Bess, a musical/opera where it was sung by African Americans. Either Ella Fitgerald's or Billie Holiday's version is probably the most famous, but it has been sung by artists as diverse as Kenney Chesney, Sublime, Bobby McFerrin and New Kids on the Block. It has been covered 4000 times in dozens of languages.
The opera it was written for is based on a novel by a southern white guy who wrote it about southern blacks. Presumably the song would not exist had the novel not come first.
A few questions:
Did Gershwin misappropriate the lullaby in the first place?
Well, given that his dad was Moishe Gershowitz from St. Petersburg, one could certainly argue that Russian culture was his to dip into. But Gershwin himself was an American and the lullaby was from a different part of Russia.
If Gershwin had appropriated it, can the product of an appropriation have such great artistic merit as to make the appropriation excusable?
Does this song belong to:
Southern white people?
New York Jewish people?
I submit that it belongs to us all and that truly great works of art and literature and music become so because they speak to universal truths.