One of my “parlor tricks,” if such you can call it, used to be performing the Kurt Weill standard “September Song” in the voice of Lotte Lenya. I can’t pretend anyone ever requested this, per se, but from the ages of fifteen to about twenty-one, I broke into it on the slightest pretext. Among other things, the rendition was very loud. No record exists of my performances: small mercies, et cetera.
“September Song” was famously written for Walter Huston’s limited vocal range, and his initial rendition—as an elderly Peter Stuyvesant in 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday—remains, for many, the most poignant. (To anyone who would laugh at the thought of a seventeenth-century Dutch colonist singing one of musical theater’s great laments on aging, I would merely point out that “Memory” is performed by an anguished cat.) My grandfather always talked about first hearing the song when Walter Huston visited the radio program for which he was a writer in 1938. He cried, he said. When he died, it was sung at his funeral.
Since its debut, it’s seen renditions from Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Durante, plus Peter, Paul and Mary, James Brown, and Lou Reed. They all bring something unique to it—though it should be pointed out that, in its original form, the song is somewhat less elegiac than the version most of us know today. The introduction is gendered and slightly silly—at least relative to the melancholy of the chorus:
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
So it’s no surprise that many versions—particularly those performed by women—cut straight to the chorus:
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 September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you
Lotte Lenya recorded her most famous version in 1957, several years after her husband Weill’s death. I loved it; I played the record it over and over in the book-lined second-floor guest room, crying. I was so fiercely moved by it that I had to rob it of its power.
One of the most painful things about being young is the knowledge that you are young. You feel privately that every song is about you; you know most of them are not. Everything feels like rash presumption. (Many things—notably Sondheim songs—are simply not options.) And yet, I felt “September Song” in my marrow, even though it was about a dying old man and I was a teenage girl. So my longing knew no expression but a burlesque of feeling.
Only two people enjoyed this: my grandfather and a guy I met in college who found it so delightful that he wrote the part of a cheeky old woman for me in an original student musical based on a medieval manuscript, which then I had to play. So really, I got my just deserts, and I didn’t ever do it again after that.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.