September Song

Walter Huston, Decca DU 40001, 1945 (?)

Kurt Weill had a special knack for intriguing, alluring melodies, and was able to find lyricists to partner with whose words added to the effect rather than taking anything away. Weill’s songs are so strong that quite a few non-singers have done a little magic with them. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was not so much a singer as an actress, but her recordings of Weill songs from his German as well as his American musicals are considered definitive. She originated the role of Polly Peacham in Weill’s best-known work, The Three-Penny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), which introduced “Mackie Messer”—known in the US as “Mac the Knife.” Her “Surabaya Johnny” (from Happy End, with lyrics by Brecht), sung in German, is chilling, even if you don’t understand German.

Also worth finding is Burgess Meredith singing “Johnny’s Song” from a 1956 recording of the songs from the 1936 musical Johnny Johnson (lyrics by Paul Green), Weill’s first American show after leaving Germany. The Penguin wasn’t a singer, but he acts his way through Weill’s complex melody, and it works.

Not so great was Lou Reed’s take on “September Song,” from Hal Willner’s Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars. Croaker Marianne Faithfull and growler Tom Waits are both suited to the material and make out better than Lou, who gives the exquisitely melodic Kurt Weill the Velvet Underground monotone treatment. (Hal Willner’s tribute projects are all uneven but provocative, and three of his choices of composers to salute are three of my favorite songwriters—Weill, plus Thelonious Monk, with That’s the Way I Feel Now, from 1984, and Nino Rota, with Amarcord Nino Rota, from 1981.)

Walter Huston is best-remembered for his role as the old gold-panner who puts Bogart’s character in his place in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you’re only familiar with the actor from this role, you may be unable to imagine him crooning emotional ballads. This record presents that other side.

Huston wasn’t a singer, but there is so much feeling built into “September Song”’s melody and lyrics (by Maxwell Anderson) that a great actor can wring a lot of emotional response from it. I’d enjoyed Walter Huston’s version of “September Song” on a cast album for Knickerbocker Holiday, and was thrilled to find it on shellac. He comes through, delivering a big emotional punch, and then does it again on the B-side.

I had no idea Walter Huston had done a version of “Lost in the Stars,” which was the bonus I discovered on the flip side of this record. Of all of Kurt Weill’s beautiful melodies, “Lost in the Stars” (from the musical of the same name, also with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) is probably the most haunting. Huston’s version doesn’t top Tony Bennett’s version with The Count Basie Orchestra, but it is poignant and, in its own way, beautiful. These two recordings seem to be absolutely ideally suited to the 78 rpm format; I can’t really imagine listening to them any other way.

There is a mystery about the recording that I haven’t yet solved. The musical Lost in the Stars was completed in 1948 and debuted in 1949. I can find no mention of the title song existing prior to the collaboration of Weill and Anderson. Yet everything I can find regarding this recording states it was made in 1944. Since Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s book upon which the musical was based, wasn’t published until 1948, my guess is that the info about the recording date is wrong. But I suppose it’s possible that Weill and Anderson collaborated on the song before they knew where they’d put it. As deliberate as Weill was, though, and as perfect the song is in the show, I doubt that was the case.

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