Rarely in my weekly musings do I focus on a single song, but the beginning of a new month gives this old “greyhair” of a ukulele and musical theater buff an opportunity too good to let pass by.
It’s a melancholy song, rather than sad, and it sort of suits my mood these days as we head into the last few months of this bewildering if not unbearable year of 2020. So, let’s glance back eighty or so years and take an over-the-shoulder look and listen to what has become an American standard appropriate for this month: “September Song.”
Our song was written for the now almost forgotten Broadway musical “Knickerbocker Holiday,” starring Walter Huston (1883-1950), that premiered in 1938.
The book and lyrics were written by Maxwell Anderson and the music composed by Kurt Weill. The story is loosely based on Washington Irving’s “Father Knickerbocker Stories” about life in the 17th century Dutch “New Netherland” colony in America—old New York.
The musical is a romantic comedy with a thinly disguised ribbing of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and of authoritarian governments in general. Sadly, the book didn’t sit well with either critics or audiences and the show didn’t last too long. “September Song,” however, lives on and on. Be that as it may, gentle readers, we’ll just leave the vagaries of political/theater history to be explored by others while we simply muse along with the music.
Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) was a prolific American playwright, author, poet, journalist, and lyricist. But, by the 1920s, his progressive take on politics pushed him away from journalism. He soon found his true calling in more creative forms of writing . . .
. . . and became one of the most prolific writers of historical plays and films of his day. He was particularly noted for adapting novels and other literary works for both Broadway and Hollywood.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950) was a German composer actively working, with his wife the singer and actress Lotte Lenye, from the 1920s in his native Berlin and in their later years as American citizens.
He was a leading composer for the stage and was best known for his fruitful collaborations with playwrite Bertolt Brecht, including their best-known and still performed work “The Threepenny Opera.”
The plot of “Knickerbocker Holiday” is a bit convoluted but basically it’s the tale of Peter Stuyvesant, a Dutchman both arrogant and a bit long in the tooth , who was sent to America in the 1600s by the government of Holland to serve as the governor of the “New Netherland” colony.
The musical dwells on the comi-tragic interactions between the colonial governor and the stubborn, independent-minded colonials. Needless to say, that was a typical political reality in America in those colonial days! All this was done with plenty of singing and dancing, no less.
In the context of the musical, “September Song” is a lyrical metaphor comparing a single year to a person’s entire life span from birth to death. Here, the song is sung by Huston, a Broadway idol in his day (but, alas, not the best of vocalists) in the starring role of the curmudgeonly, peg-legged Stuyvesant.
The song is a smitten but older man’s wooing song (lament, really) addressed to a colonial maiden that has caught his roving eye. She is, of course, desirable but, alas, much younger and, ultimately, disinterested. The premise of the song is that, in the eyes of the elderly Stuyvesant, the courting activities of young folks and the objects of their desire are, at best, transient and time-wasting. So, why not choose him now, he sings, while there is still time? As an older suitor, Stuyvesant pleads that he hasn’t “got time for the waiting game.”
Our plucky heroine, of course, brushes aside his advances and runs to the waiting arms (albeit locked in the punishment stocks) of a young and handsome colonial rabblerouser who (I said the plot was convoluted!) was about to be hanged for “disobedience” to colonial rule or some such thing. And the play goes on . . .
Today some folks would probably chant “#MeToo” as Huston sang away but, that was eighty innocent years ago before such things as hashtags. Anyway, we “greyhairs” who may also be a bit long in the tooth can relate to the song’s metaphorical image of the passage of time. You youngsters—just you wait a few decades!
Moving on, here are the original lyrics–verses as well as chorus–as sung in the musical by Huston. This puts the whole song into context. Click or tap on the next image for this.
You might not recognize Huston in his early “Knickerbocker role.” Here he is a few decades later as one of Hollywood’s great character actors. Who would have thought?
Here he is in the film “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” For which he won an Oscar. An interesting bit of family history is that his son John and grandaughter Angelica have also won Acadamy Awards!
Here he is with some serious makeup!
Over the decades, “September Song” has evolved into a minor-key jazz and pop standard performed by many singers over the years–young, old, male, female –and it’s worth listening to a few other interpretations. It was featured in the 1944 movie version, also called “Knickerbocker Holiday,” and sung by character actor Charles Coburn who played Stuyvesant as even more comic and buffoonish than Huston. Alas, there seems to be no YouTube of Coburn’s rendition. But the whole movie is there if you have the hour or so, and the inclination, these “precious days.”
Here is Coburn, to the left, with a “baroque” wooden leg. The young hearthrob is the really good singer Nelson Eddy and the comely conquest is Constance Dowling. Needless to say, the movie suffered through a MAJOR rewrite to switch the lead to the young and handsome Eddy. At least Stuyvesant’s song remained.
The recording of our song that reached the top of the charts, however, was made in 1946, by a much younger and better singer than either Huston or Coburn, Frank Sinatra. He leaves out the verses that provide the song’s context, however, and really only does the chorus. Musical license, I guess; but musical cheeseparing nonetheless.
Click or tap on the next image to listen to what became one of Sinatra’s signature songs over the decades.
A more recent “greyhair” to tackle this tune was Willie Nelson in 1978. Click or tap on the next image for his melancholy interpretation. Again, only the chorus without context.
Now–performing well out of his usual clownish character–is a surprisingly good take on “September Song” by, of all people, Jimmie Durante. Tap or click on the next image for this. I think that this “greyhair” really captures the poignancy of the song. And, it includes the verses! Context makes a difference; you might want to grab a hankie!
Since this musing is, lest we forget, about music and ukuleles, I can’t resist digressing. The time setting of “Knickerbocker Holiday” coincides with the so-called Dutch “Golden Age” of commerce and art and, needless to say, a lot of art of the period touches on musical themes. I’m sure, of course, that these strummers and singers are using 17th century versions of our yellow and blue books!
Alas, this was way before the heyday of our favorite little musical instrument, the ukulele. But there are plenty of artistic examples in the genre paintings of the day depicting stringed instruments, particularly a variety of forms of the lute. Luteleles?
I’m sure that somewhere in the New Netherland colony of our musical there was a lute or two to be found. But the only apropos reference to a ukulele that I could find is, well, a bit more modern–but from the ancient New Netherland village of “Old Dutch” Los Angeles. Sorry. “Greyhair Joke” . . .
Now, back to the business at hand and with a real ukulele. The melancholy lyrics of “September Song” that touch on the aging process are one thing that has lasted, but more so has the melody. This has been interpreted as a jazz standard by many musicians not the least of which is this intricate ukulele solo. Click or tap on the next image to feel the musical thrill of a September chill, Gypsy jazz ukulele style, no less.
So, as “the days grow short,” we reach the calendric September of this year, as well as a pivotal month within a metaphorical lifetime. So, let’s remember both the verses and choruses of the songs we sing and live, and–whether “greyhaired” or not–stay safe, stay sequestered, stay masked . . .
. . . and STAY TUNED!