The surprising story of “September Song”

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“Autumn Equinox at Twilight,” September 22, 2018, North Hero, Vermont. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

And the days grow short
When you reach September

“September Song”

As the autumn equinox approaches, I think of “September Song,” a popular tune from my youth–my May, if you like. It’s a haunting song of eternal love and a promise to spend time together as the lovers grow older. It takes on more meaning as I move through the autumn of my own years.

Back in the May of my life, I did not know the history of this song and how it evolved to the one we remember today. I only knew that the words sounded … sad.

It was first sung by Walter Huston in the 1938 Broadway musical “Knickerbocker Holiday.” Maxwell Anderson wrote the original book and lyrics. The haunting tune was by Kurt Weill.

The anti-hero

Walter Huston as Peter Stuyvesant in Knickerbocker Holiday. (Source: Wikipedia).

Old-time film fans who know Huston as a character actor may be surprised to imagine him in a Broadway musical. Huston, then 55, played Peter Stuyvesant, who would have been about 37 in the story’s timeline about the Dutch colonists who settled modern-day New York.

The play casts Stuyvesant as the villain, an older man who plotted to wed the young hero’s lover to advance his own political power. Later, when he became governor of New Amsterdam, the real Stuyvesant ruled with an iron hand. He was the one who forbade religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church.

Playwright Maxwell Anderson used Stuyvesant’s ambition as an allegory for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal fascism. Yes, that’s right. Critics at the time felt that FDR consolidated too much power around the central government and allegiance to the Democratic Party. Many were outraged when he ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940. By then, of course, Hitler and Mussolini were placing first and second in the world fascist Olympics.

Here are the lyrics Anderson wrote when Huston, a so-so singer, insisted on having a solo in the show. Its character-driven words popularized the concept of what we now call a May-December relationship:

But it's a long, long while
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September

And I have lost one tooth
And I walk a little lame
And I haven't got time
For the waiting game

And the days turn to gold
As they grow few
September, November
And these few golden days
I'd spend with you
These golden days I'd spend with you

When you meet with a young man early in spring
They court you in song and rhyme
They woo you with 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

"Knickerbocker Holiday" was remade as a film in 1940. The very different political climate led to major changes, including many of the musical numbers. I'm not sure when the song was rewritten, but by 1946 31-year-old Frank Sinatra was hitting the charts with a more romantic version closer to what we know today.

Here's "Ol' Blue Eyes" in the version that I remember from 1965, the year he released his retrospective album "September of My Years." By then he was 50, truly in the September of a life that ended in May, 1998.

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