(Pictured: Willie Nelson in the Stardust days, 1979.)
“September Song” has an interesting history. With music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, it first appeared a musical called Knickerbocker Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1938. The musical, a political allegory set in 17th century New Amsterdam and comparing the New Deal to fascism, ran for about five months, closing early in 1939. “September Song” was sung in the original production by Walter Huston (father of director John and grandfather of actress Anjelica). In 1946, Frank Sinatra scored a more substantial hit with it. In 1950, the song was featured in a movie called September Affair; it seems a better fit for a sentimental love story than for political commentary. After that, Stan Kenton, Liberace, Dean Martin, and Sarah Vaughan cut popular versions of it. It’s been recorded by lots of jazz players, but also by country singers Eddy Arnold and Faron Young, James Brown, Lindsey Buckingham, Fats Domino, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Lynne, and the Platters. Lou Reed cut a highly unique version, one of the better ones you’ll ever hear, for a Kurt Weill tribute album in 1985.
But Willie Nelson’s version of “September Song” is unmatched. He changed Huston’s reading of the lyric, making it more sentimental, but also more timeless. Producer Booker T. Jones outdid himself, contributing a gorgeous arrangement and providing sensitive and brilliant keyboards. Part of the appeal of Huston’s recording is the age in his voice, although he was only 55 when he recorded it. It accentuates the difference between May and December. But when 45-year-old Willie sings about how “the days dwindle down to a precious few,” it feels powerfully urgent, urgency that can’t be fully grasped by the younger girl he’s singing to.
Willie’s “September Song” is from Stardust, a 1978 album of pop standards that, at the height of the outlaw country movement, twanged barely a whit. The album’s signature sound was not so much Willie’s distinctive guitar—although it was there—but the distinctive keyboard textures of Booker T. It was one of the first instances of a contemporary star dipping into the Great American Songbook, a career move that every aging star makes nowadays. Stardust is filled with songs made famous on Broadway, in the movies, and to a lesser extent on radio, songs that were interpreted and re-interpreted over the years by dozens, if not hundreds, of performers. They encompass a shared experience of mid-century American popular music that no longer exists in our fragmented culture.
“Stardust” itself is on many short lists of the greatest American popular songs. Willie’s version is fine, but my favorite is the one recorded by Nat King Cole in 1957. It opens with a verse not included on many versions:
And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart
You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the days gone by
If you can’t appreciate the emotional power of Mitchell Parish’s words, you and I probably shouldn’t have lunch together anytime soon. And if you can’t dig Cole’s performance (and the beautiful melody written by Hoagy Carmichael), you might want to think about giving up music altogether. Under the proper circumstances—the coming of autumn, for example—Nat’s reading of “Stardust” has staggering mojo.
(Rebooted from a couple of 2009 posts.)