When I was probably 12 years old, I took some of my paper route money and, improbable as it sounds about an era when rock & roll was ascendant and all youths thought that “adult” music was just as impossibly square as they do today, bought the album, “The Shadow of Your Smile” by the pop crooner Andy Williams. Part of my rationale was that my mom was a huge fan of his, and I knew she would enjoy the music on the family’s newly purchased console with “stereo hi-fi.” (Is that perhaps the great-grandfather of “wi-fi?”)
Another part was that I had settled in to watch Williams’s variety show with my mom on a regular basis, and found myself drawn to the man’s voice, his elegant phrasing, and the lush melodic beauty of the title song and a number of others on the album.
Besides, the guy had a gorgeous French wife whose name played deliciously on my tongue—Cllllaaawww-deeeeen Lon-jjhayyyyyy.
Janis and Jimi and Credence, et al, would just have to wait.
(Years later, after her divorce from Williams, Longet was convicted of negligent homicide in the shooting death of her Olympic skier boyfriend, Spider Sabich. She served 30 days on weekends, then married her defense attorney. No, I am not making this up.)
Of the dozen songs on the Williams album, every one of them a hit, one seemed to penetrate to the core of my being: “Try to Remember.” Which strikes me now as slightly absurd, given my juvenile status and lack of anything remotely connected to the life experience and emotional depth plumbed by this classic in the American songbook.
But it was—and remains—an achingly beautiful tune, tinged with tender images and hitting notes of pathos in line with the romantic sensibilities I’d inherited from both my parents.
And I can’t help but think that the lyrics themselves, involving intricate wordplay on a bunch of rhyming double “l” words—callow, fellow, follow, willow, pillow, billow, mellow, yellow—connected even then to the love of words that seems to have been planted in one of my genes, the likes of which scientists will no doubt one day locate precisely and be able to replicate at will.
All of which brings me to the overarching subject of this post: the delicious ache of September, and the gorgeous, haunting songs written in its honor.
September, of course, has autumn going for it. Though every season contains its own element of drama and wonder, come on, now—autumn, with all that death and decay amidst raging golden beauty, sidles right up to most every human being, whispering its sweet notes of romance and melancholy just before it dims the light above your head and devours your heart.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
And so on. Andy, take it away…
And the light, too. Oh my, the changing and the dying of the light.
And often enough along with it, hope.
The light pales and recedes as the leaves die, the sun’s warmth pulling back inexorably from the walls of your home, the soil in your garden, the summer glow in your heart, leaving you and your world exposed, often caught by the sudden and unbidden shiver of the season’s first cooling rain.
The leaves of brown came tumblin’ down, remember
In September, in the rain
The sun went out just like a dying ember
That September in the rain
It doesn’t matter whether the song or the poem was written 500 or five years ago, either. Our earliest ancestors were no doubt fearful and baffled when that first autumn landed upon them, and though scientists have long since explained it to us in detail, the mystery and melancholy remain, sometimes spiraling down to nearly inconsolable grief, however much our rational minds know that spring will come again.
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends
You don’t always need words, either. Sometimes the notes alone, whatever the instrument, can create a mood supremely evocative of a season, a loss, a love, a war, and every other experience and the emotion that we humans inevitably attach to it.
Agnes Obel is a contemporary Danish composer-pianist-singer who is stretching musical boundaries with all manner of layered instrumentation enabled by technology.
The only layering on this piano solo, however, are the layers of emotion she evokes in her ode to September.
All, however, is not lost as “the autumn winds blow chilly and cold.” (That’s a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s beautiful and haunting “April Come She Will,” which is ineligible for our September list of songs since it takes us only through August.)
The renowned band “Earth, Wind & Fire,” led by the irrepressible Maurice White, seemed constitutionally incapable of hitting a somber note, whatever the season. It was always spring or summer in EW&F’s world, with love blooming and the dancing full of, well, fire and verve.
No mournful in-folding here, proving that no matter how dire our situation can sometimes appear to be, better times are always just a shimmy away.
Or, as White had it:
Ba de ya—say do you remember
Ba de ya—dancing in September
Ba de ya—never was a cloudy day
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I’ll add the obvious jazz standard: Autumn Leaves. the contradiction: Since you went away,
The days grow long, And soon I’ll hear, Old winter’s song
Kirk, that was my first and everlastingly favorite song by Nat King Cole, whom my mom adored even more than she did Andy Williams. Didn’t make the cut here though, because it didn’t mention “September” at all, and we maintain very strict standards for our collections! :-)
Also didn’t mention Van Morrison’s “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” another serious fave of mine which does include “September” in the lyrics, but which I wrote extensively about already here: http://andrewhidas.com/van-morrison-and-the-deep-wisdom-of-the-leaves/
Remember I did. First my all time favorite singer,Ed Ames, and then
Jerry Orbach, in the original Fantasticks,doing his rendition in 1982.
Ed Ames! Hadn’t had his name surface for me in a long time, Barbara, but this will send me scurrying to You Tube for a reacquaintance! Glad you mentioned him. Saw the Orbach version of the song while compiling this and considered honoring him as being the first in line, but the Williams version had to trump for my own historical reasons. Thanks for this!
How about Carole King’s “Might as well Rain Until September?” It is really a summer song, but it does have September in the title!
Andrew, I couldn’t listen to Andy Williams’s rendition of Try To Remember because I played the original cast album of The Fantastiks some 5,000 times when I was in high school, and the only voice I can hear singing that song is that of the original El Gallo, Jerry Orbach. So you don’t have to try to remember here’s the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpKXC8NnP_E
James, never heard that Carole King before—a serious treat to be transported back to her more bubblegum-ish days in the early 60s! Couldn’t help noticing it shared quite a bit thematically with “See You in September” by “The Happenings,” another lovers-separated-through-the-summer pop hit from that era that I considered but left out of this collection.
David: once THAT tune from THAT artist has entered your bloodstream, your system will automatically reject any other version, which it perceives as a foreign invader intent on doing you harm. Then you’d need massive amounts of transfusions and anti-rejection drugs, and it would just be a mess, I very well understand. Best not even to broach the idea at all, so you have my complete sympathy…
Hey Drew! So to add perhaps an even more obvious one to the list, how about Kurt Weill’s “September Song”? Recorded by many, perhaps most famously Sinatra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJAuyXAAD3c), though Willie Nelson also managed a pretty great version,
IMO (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkB_d0oFAaM). My grandfather Bernie once told me, when I was 28 or so, that I should wait another 30 years, then listen to the song again. I’d understand it better then.
Whoa, I’m so glad you brought this to my attention Ben, because it cleared up my confusion about this song. I actually started listening to Sinatra’s 1946 version in preparing this post, but it included the somewhat lengthy first two stanzas, which involved fairly intricate lyrics and a melody line that I didn’t recognize and didn’t much cotton to. So I stopped listening and didn’t use it, ignorant of the fact that the final two stanzas morphed into the simpler lyrics and melody that I know quite well from the Willie Nelson version and many others, including Sinatra having done the simpler version himself in various other recordings. The song actually has quite a complicated history, which is worth a look here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_Song
Knowing what I know now, I definitely would have included this and made it “Six Songs of September,” which I had originally planned to do anyway given its nice alliterative quality, but when I paused at five and wasn’t too enthusiastic about any of the sixth options I was considering (Barry White’s “September When I First Met You?” Naw…), I opted for “less is more.”
And just for easy reference and edification, here are the original complete lyrics, written by Maxwell Anderson specifically to provide a solo vehicle and plot elaboration for Walter Huston in the 1938 Broadway musical, “Knickerbocker Holiday.”
Thanks for alerting me to this; the different iterations and history of this song was probably worth a post all by itself!
When I was a young man courting the girls
I played me a waiting game
If a maid refused me with tossing curls
I’d let the old Earth make a couple of whirls
While I plied her with tears in lieu of pearls
And as time came around she came my way
As time came around, she came
When you meet with the young girls early in the Spring
You court them in song and rhyme
They answer with words and a clover ring
But if you could examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing
And the plentiful waste of time of day
A plentiful waste of time
Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you