A Few “September Songs”

Not surprisingly, we begin this blog, September Songs, with that sweetly melancholy standard, “September Song”:

But it’s a long, long while from May to December,
And the days grow short when you reach September.
The autumn weather turns the leaves to flame,
And I haven’t got the time for the waiting game.

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few;
September, November. . . .
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you,
These precious days I’ll spend with you.

Maxwell Anderson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author, poet, reporter, and lyricist. He wrote the Broadway musicals Knickerbocker Holiday and Lost in the Stars; the play The Bad Seed, from which the classic film was adapted; screen adaptations of other authors’ plays and novels, such as Death Takes a Holiday and All Quiet on the Western Front; and the play Key Largo, on which the famous Bogie and Bacall movie was based.

The film script for 1948’s Key Largo was heavily changed from the play. John Huston, the film’s director, raged publicly against “the deficiencies in the play,” but that was something of a smokescreen: he was so angry over the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that he didn’t want to adapt a play written by, as he put it, “a reactionary who hates Franklin Delano Roosevelt!”

He wasn’t wrong. A decade earlier, Knickerbocker Holiday (which coincidentally starred Walter Huston, John Huston’s father) created a stir as both a romantic comedy and a thinly veiled allegory equating FDR’s New Deal with fascism; in fact, one of the characters on the corrupt town council was an ancestor of Roosevelt! Maxwell Anderson was a pacifist and an individualist anarchist. He saw the New Deal as another example of the corporatism and concentration of political power which had given rise to both Nazism and Stalinism.

Political messages aside, easily the most memorable thing to come from the musical was “September Song,” which was sung by the peg-legged tyrant Stuyvesant (played by Walter Huston) to his love Tina. It is his last attempt to convince her to marry him instead of her charming young man, Brom. Huston’s voice had such pathos and touching common sense to it that his rendition became one of American musical theater’s legendary moments.

Much of the credit, of course, goes to the music. Kurt Weill, the German composer of the great Threepenny Opera, Happy End, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (all with Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics), and later, Lady in the Dark (with Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin), One Touch of Venus (with Ogden Nash), and Lost in the Stars (with Anderson again), had emigrated to America three years earlier.

Weill’s score expressed darting wit and fearless sentimentality that sometimes compensated for the dull patches of dialogue. The song “How Can You Tell an American” was Anderson’s attack on Roosevelt and Weill’s attack on Hitler. The lyrics may have been a little long and wordy, but the rhythm of Weill’s music had a showstopping verve to it.

Ironically, producer Jean Dalrymple wrote that she was “a little disappointed [in the score] because it was so American. And nothing like Threepenny Opera which I had gotten used to and loved. I felt shocked that he Americanized himself so quickly.”

The music is decidedly wistful. “September Song” begins:

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 take a couple of twirls,
And I’d ply her with tears instead of pearls.
And as time came around, she came my way.
As time came around, she came.

Most recorded versions forgo the second verse, and for good reason. Sour grapes may be fine in a Broadway musical, especially when it moves the plot forward, but it’s death to a romantic ballad:

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.

But there’s still that wonderful refrain . . .

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few:
September, November. . . .
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you,
These precious days I’ll spend with you.

Here, to start my September songs, are three versions. The first is perhaps my favorite, performed by the great Jimmy Durante in 1955.

After decades of novelty and comedy recordings, film roles, and television work, Durante was invited to record a “serious” album of standards and originals. He was uncertain about the project, but the resulting album, September Song, was in every way a success. It was Durante’s only album to enter the Top 40, and the title track made Billboard’s Top Pop 100. Mixing Durante’s unique voice with lush strings and a vocal chorus, September Song is a left-field masterpiece full of superb performances. Durante was by no means a technically accomplished vocalist, but he negotiated the sessions with aplomb and created a piece of work very different from, but just as charming as, the comedy that had made him a star.

Durante changes “I’d ply her with tears instead of pearls” in the verse to “in lieu of pearls,” a change that Frank Sinatra kept when he recorded his version (singing here with John Denver):

But I swear Lou Reed changes it yet again, and says, “I’d ply her with tears and a lure of pearls,” which is an interesting twist. Lou Reed’s rather atonal version takes a longer and decidedly darker (but, in its way, no less poignant) look at the song:

And finally, for no good reason whatsoever except to hear more Lou Reed, here’s his famous “Walk on the Wild Side”:


~ by Craig R. Smith on 1 September 2007.

19 Responses to “A Few “September Songs””

  1. What a great beginning to this new blog! I love the Jimmy Durante version. I’m almost positive I have a tape around here with Bryan Ferry singing it.

  2. Thanks so much, Deloney. The Durante version really caught me by surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Bryan Ferry version. But then, I’m just a babe in the woods with this stuff.

  3. Well, I can see this blog is going to give me a serious education. Beautifully executed, my friend (in the good way). I can see why you love the Durante—it was wonderful. And thanks awfully for the Lou Reed. I’d never heard him do this one, and it was freakin’ awesome.

  4. Lou Reed is almost always freakin’ awesome (hence the inclusion of “Walk on the Wild Side,” even though it has nothing whatever to do with “September Song”).

    As for educating you, some of the upcoming posts are, I’m afraid, overly tweedy, but there may still be some redeeming value in them anyway. I like tweed, of course; I was practically born with suede patches on my elbows. But I recognize it’s not to everyone’s taste!

  5. Heavens, have we worked hard today. Lee is asleep and I am reading this by what scant light filters through the curtains. I deplore hotel rooms.

    And so I read this, wanting so much to listen to Durante and Reed and Denver (I guess I’ll have to deal with Sinatra as well) but it will have to wait a day, a week. Maybe a bit more unless I get some day time.

    But that I’ll probably spend reading more of this blog.

  6. Interesting note on Durante. When my dear daughter was taking a business class in her AA degree, she had a paper to do on Hospitality Management.

    She decided to do it on the entertainment aspect. Nightclubs and bars and such. She was, at the time, helping create a music club in Miami.

    One of the texts used, suggested by her professor at BCC, was by Durante.

    “THAT Durante?” I asked her.
    Sure was. Seffy knows Durante, classically educated as she is.

    I read a bit of it. Still in use and useful. Easy to read and well written.

    Interesting man, Durante.

  7. What are the lyrics to the seond chorus of September Song? I’ve heard something about “precious brew” and “these few vintage years I’ll spend with you.” Did I dream them or does anybody know them?

  8. Jon, the official second refrain is the same as the first. My strong hunch is that one of the dozens of musicians who recorded it made that change on the fly, just for the sake of variety. Sinatra was rather famous for that.

    I just found this list of artists who recorded the song, and it doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive:

    Eddy Arnold; Tony Bennett; Brook Benton; Pat Boone; Diahann Carroll; Maurice Chevalier; June Christy; Rosemary Clooney; Nat king Cole; Ray Conniff; Don Cornell; Bing Crosby; Billy Daniels; Sammy Davis Jr.; Buddy DeFranco; Dion & the Belmonts; Eddy Duchin; Jimmy Durante; Billy Eckstine; Gracie Fields; Ella Fitzgerald; The Four Freshmen; Lesley Garrett; Benny Goodman; Eydie Gorme; Dick Haymes; Al Hirt; Lena Horne; Harry James; Joni James; Mario Lanza; Liberace; Mantovani; Dean Martin; Tony Martin; Al Martino; Johnny Mathis; Rod McKuen; George Melly; Ethel Merman; Helen Merrill; Matt Monroe; Willie Nelson; Patti Page; Elaine Paige; Les Paul & Mary Ford; Peter, Paul & Mary; The Platters; Johnnie Ray; Tex Ritter; Frank Sinatra; Jo Stafford; Mel Tormé; Sarah Vaughan; Andy Williams.

    So . . . maybe one of them?

    Sorry I couldn’t have been more help, Jon.

  9. Hope I can still post now that it’s late October.

    Re “most recorded versions forgo the second verse, and for good reason”: For me, no reason is good enough for destroying the exquisitely subtle finishing touch of Andersen’s poetry, the rhyme between “came my way” and “time of day”.

    The first verse has the rhyme-and-rhythm pattern abaaab, where the a-lines have long meter and rhyme using a short vowel, and the b-lines are the opposite. But just when the rhyme and rhythm indicate the verse should end, an extra foot is tacked on (“my way”). This disturbs both the rhyme and the rhythm, sending the verse into overtime to resolve the tension by repeating the line without the disturbing extension. But this still leaves something unresolved: the extended penultimate line doesn’t rhyme with anything. This nags subconsciously until the second verse repeats the entire rhyme/rhythm pattern, this time finally tying up the loose end. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time I heard this song that I realized why “…time of day” sounds so sweet.

    Of course Weill’s music is the big attraction of this song, but the poetic lyrics should be given their due. These lyrics are surely a masterpiece; casually dropping a verse is not appropriate.

  10. You’re most welcome to post, Harvey.

    And thanks for your thoughts, and for expressing them so articulately. My only cavil is that the second verse is a tad whiny for my taste. Which may be perfectly appropriate for the character in the show (I’ve never seen it, so I can’t say), but perhaps isn’t suitable for a pop standard.

    On the other hand, there’s something nice about really respecting the author’s intentions, isn’t there?

    Have a look around, Harvey, and see if there are any other posts that catch your fancy.

  11. Thank you. I love ‘September Song’ and I have enjoyed the material you are sharing with your readers. I can never find the complete original lyrics as sung by Walter Huston. I would be grateful if you or any of your readers have these original lyrics.

  12. To: Peter: WE’d also love to find the Walter Huston lyrics to September Song…. has anyone sent them to you?? We have not been able to track them down……if you find them, we would love it if you could email them to: wojge@aol.com…… many thanks…

  13. Peter – we have the original words Huston sang……. ..And I have lost one tooth and I walk a little lame, And I haven’t got time For the waiting game…… (you can listen to it on Kurt Weil from Berlin to Broadway….. (on Amazon.com)……

  14. There has been a subtle change to the lyrics. In the original, Walter Huston sang
    “These precious days I’d spend with you…” Everyone thinks the song is about September! It’s not…it’s a man reflecting on his life, and what he wants to do with the rest of it.

    Like me…
    Rick Jolley
    Heartland West

  15. Yesterday morning the syndicated Chuck Cecil “Swinging Years” oldies program had a blockbuster live recording of Walter Huston performing “September Song”. This was during a simulated 1939 Top Ten Countdown; but not the usual recording since it had different phrasing and a round of heavy applause at the end. Is this version available anywhere?
    BTW, neat site!

  16. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  17. does anyone remember a song with do you remember one september afternoon..I strolled with you etc

  18. Sounds like “Remember Me,” sung by Bing Crosby:

  19. There is an Epic LP called Great Moments in Show Business. The first track is Walter Huston’s version of September Song, with the “And I have lost one tooth and I walk a little lame” line, and the When you meet with the young men early in Spring they court you with song and rhyme, they woo you words and a clover ring, but if you examine the goods they bring, they have little to offer but the songs they sing, and a plentiful waste of time of day, a plentiful waste of time. But it’s a long long time from May to December, will the clover ring last when you reach September…” And you realize he is singing this to Tina, hoping to prevent her from falling in love with Brom, who he tries to hang, but winds up hanging him round the waist instead of by the neck!
    The LP also has Durante Clayton and Jackson’s You Know Darn Well I Can Do Without Broadway, Bill Robinson’s Hi Ho Doing the New Lo Down, Eddie Cantor’s Little Curly Hair on a high Chair, Burns and Allen’s Forget Me Nuts routine, and others. It’s be great as a CD!!!!

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