Autumn Songs

Resting from the Harvest, by Alfred Glendening, 1861 – 1907.

For Meredith, and in memoriam Danny.

I’ll begin this little survey of music for Autumn with a pair of people who may never have met but who crossed paths artistically: lyricist-singer-composer Johnny Mercer and composer-arranger-pianist-singer Michel Legrand.

Mercer wrote English lyrics to the great French song ”Les Feuilles mortes,” by Hungarian-French film composer Joseph Kosmo (who scored a bunch of famous films by Renoir and others, which I haven’t seen), lyrics by the French poet and lyricist Jacques Prevert (whom Lawrence Ferlinghetti translated for his own City Lights Pocket Poet series). Mercer Englished the French “dead leaves” as “Autumn Leaves. And Michel Legrand recorded it at least twice, both beautiful versions, and both featuring prominent violin.

The first comes from Barbra Streisand’s 1966 album of French songs, Je m’appelle Barbra, arranged and conducted by Legrand. A terrific album, with a moodily elegant black & white Richard Avedon photo for the cover. The violin soloist is uncredited.

The second Legrand arrangement comes from another album of French songs, a 1992 duet album with the great French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who had founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with the great Gypsy-French guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1934. Naturally, this instrumental arrangement features even more prominent fiddle.

Legrand may have gotten the violin inspiration from Billy Strayhorn, who arranged it for the 1958 Duke Ellington album, Ellington Indigos. Ozzie Bailey sings it in French and in English; Ray “Floor Show” Nance (who earned his nickname by doubling on cornet, violin, vocals, and tap dancing with Ellington) stars on violin. So gorgeous.

“Why did summer go so quickly? Was it something that you said? Lovers walk along the shore and leave their footprints in the sand.” Those autumnal lines break my heart. Michel Legrand wrote the music for a 1968 movie; Rex Harrison’s son Noel sang it; Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics.

Legrand, in addition to being a nonpareil arranger and film composer – sought after as a collaborator by Miles Davis and Barbra Streisand – with a handful of pop gems on his credits, was also a unique pianist. Here’s his solo piano improvisation on “Windmills of Your Mind,” as virtuoso as and maybe with even more surprising twists and turns and cross-rhythms than Art Tatum. Recorded in 2001.

“Autumn Leaves” wasn’t the only autumnal European song that Johnny Mercer put into English. Sinatra’s great 1966 recording, with a gorgeous Nelson Riddle arrangement, “Summer Wind.” Originally written in 1965 in German – Der Sommerwind – with music by Heinz Meier and lyrics by Hans Bradtke. It was Mercer’s last Top 40 hit.

Mercer wasn’t done with Autumn. After he died, his widow, Ginger Mercer, approached Barry Manilow with a folder of lyrics that Johnny had written, asking whether Barry would like to write music for these as-yet un-musicked songs. Would he? He would. “When October Goes” was the first one he finished and has been the most successful of the bunch, hitting the Adult Contemporary charts in Manilow’s original 1984 recording, and having been covered many times subsequently.

Here’s one of the covers, by the great jazz singer Kevin Mahogany. 1996.

When October goes, it’s November, “when the skies turn gloomy,” in the words of Gordon Lightfoot’s tragic 1976 ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which tells the story of a ship that went down in Lake Superior in November, 1975.

November is also Thanksgiving month, which puts me in mind of Fairport Convention’s 1970 song, “Now Be Thankful,” written by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick.

And while this one doesn’t mention Autumn, it somehow sounds autumnal to me, and if the subject is Thanks, I’m certainly Thankful for music. “Come all ye roving minstrels, and together we will try / To rouse the spirit of the earth and move the rolling sky.” Is rousing the spirit of the earth an activity associated with All Saints’ Day? Written by Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings. I just now read that the title, “Come All Ye,” is in dictionaries, being a generic name for a type of English street ballad, many of which, apparently, start with that phrase. Sort of like Woody Guthrie’s, “Come gather round me children, a story I will tell.” Or like Irving Berlin’s, “Come on and hear.” But for Sandy Denny, she’s not summoning listeners. She’s summoning collaborators, fellow celebrants, and we’re all in the band. I dig the crazy electric fiddle, played by Dave Swarbrick. 1969.

Neil Young has written so many beautiful melodies with enchanting harmonies. And when his lyric gets me, I’m gone. Here he follows tradition and begins with an invitation: “Come a little bit closer. Hear what I have to say.” “Harvest Moon.” 1992.

John Coltrane, with his classic quartet – McCoy Tyner, piano; Elvin Jones, drums; Jimmy Garrison, bass – could play it hot or play it sweet, play it wild or play it smooth, play it outside or play it inside. Here Coltrane pushes the edge of conventionality, while the rest of the band lays a plush path for the luxuriant voice of Johnny Hartman to follow, and the whole thing is gorgeous. “Autumn Serenade,” recorded 1963, music by Peter DeRose, lyrics by Sammy Gallop.

Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote “September Song” for a Broadway show in 1938; Walter Huston – John’s father and Angelica’s grandfather – debuted it. Not famous for his singing, but . . . a marvel. I think somebody spliced together two versions here; the notes say that the recordings date from 1938 and 1944, but I don’t know.

I was into the TV show Smash – “Hey kids, let’s put on a Broadway show!”When the producer, played by Angelica Huston, hanging out at a piano bar, sang “September Song,” I thought, how cool is that, singing her grandfather’s song! Also cool that the show’s main composer, Marc Shaiman, played the piano bar pianist. 2012.

I just remembered the first version of “Autumn Leaves” that I heard. Nat King Cole’s, on a cassette that my friend Ross Lipman owned. In college or shortly afterward. I’ll have to ask him how he came to own a Nat King Cole cassette back then. Who knows? Well, I’m grateful. Another terrific Nelson Riddle arrangement, and so many more violins. 1955. And Cole is, as always, gorgeous and perfect.

So much great music, and I am so grateful. ZZ Top, getting into the spirit of Thanksgiving, knows how I feel. 1979.

It was many years before I learned that the perfectly idiomatic ZZ Top song that I’d always unthinkingly loved had originally been a Sam & Dave song, written by the great team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. 1968, and Sam & Dave’s last Stax single. Sam Moore and Dave Prater. I thank them.

Earth Wind and Fire, 1978. Maurice White, Al McKay, and Allee Willis, writers. Ba-de-ya, say, do you remember? Why, yes. Yes I do.  

Even when the harvest is good, and even if one has so much to be grateful for, Autumn retains its melancholy edge. My friend Christy McWilson covered the great Beach Boys song “ ’Til I Die” (written by Brian Wilson). Recorded in 2001.

The Beach Boys’ version remains gorgeous as well. 1971.

Dave Van Ronk was dying of cancer when he played his last concert. The audience didn’t know, and he didn’t tell them. This Joni Mitchell song was the last song he played in public. If this doesn’t grab your ever-lovin’ heart and smash it to pieces – well, you and I are dissimilar in this regard. Recorded in 2001, released in 2004. “I’d like to call back summertime and have her stay for just another month or so. But she’s got the urge for going. And I guess she’ll have to go.”

Nonetheless, Autumn is one season, one of four. As Vivaldi knew. Written around 1716 or 1717; Julia Fischer plays the fiddle solo.

Here’s to Autumn.

3 Responses to Autumn Songs

  1. Fantastic post!
    So glad I found it :=)

  2. Pingback: Autumn Songs — This Land That I Love | Vanha Talo Suomi

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