This is the third in a series of four entries that examine some of the great songs of the pop music culture celebrating the four seasons. At this time of the autumnal equinox, we take a look at songs of autumn.
Of the four seasons, I think autumn elicits the widest range of emotions. Many people I know proudly claim fall as their favorite. The air gets slightly cooler and crisper, the trees turn into dazzling displays of color, festive sports events (games and tailgate parties) are everywhere, Halloween is looming, and thoughts invariably turn to serene reflection.
And yet, many folks are overcome with sadness as another summer passes, with the knowledge that Old Man Winter isn’t far off. Very understandable; the days grow shorter, animals prepare for winter’s hibernation, our bones get chilled more easily.
As is so often the case, music has an uncanny way of crystallizing our thoughts, capturing the mood of the moment. As autumn takes hold, I’d like to take a look at a handful of pretty great songs that explore the many feelings of this multifaceted season.
“Leaves are falling all around, time I was on my way, thanks to you, I’m much obliged, such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way…”
Even a hard blues rock band like Led Zeppelin had something poignant to say about fall. In “Ramble On” (1969), from the band’s iconic “Led Zeppelin II” LP, vocalist Robert Plant came up with perfect lyrics to complement the music Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones put together for this track about moving on before the weather turns bitter.
“Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance with the stars up above in your eyes, a fantabulous night to make romance ‘neath the cover of October skies, and all the leaves on the trees are falling to the sound of the breezes that blow…”
Van Morrison has written several songs that explore autumn and its moods — his “Autumn Song” from 1973 is nearly 11 minutes long — but his best, I think, is “Moondance” (1970), with its jazzy piano, bass, flute and sax behind a gorgeous vocal delivery.
In my search for songs about autumn, I found the pickings remarkably slim, at least in the rock music genre. In the ’40s and ’50s, many torch songs about the sadness of autumn were written, and several gems have emerged in more recent years that are worth celebrating. So I’ve chosen to feature some of them here, even if they don’t strictly adhere to my blog’s usual 1960s-1970s-1980s focus. I’m bargaining that you won’t mind…
Here’s my list of songs of autumn, with a Spotify playlist at the end for listening along.
“Autumn Leaves,” Nat King Cole, 1956, and Eric Clapton, 2010
This timelessly lovely melody was written by Joseph Kosma in 1945, with French lyrics. Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics in 1947, and since then, it has been recorded by dozens of pop vocalists and jazz instrumentalists, including Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra, Roger Williams and Cannonball Adderley, Gene Pitney, The Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones and Willie Nelson. More recent renditions include those by Rickie Lee Jones (1995), Eva Cassidy (1996), Paula Cole (1997) and Bob Dylan (2015). I’ve selected Nat King Cole’s classic treatment from 1955 and Eric Clapton’s 2010 rendition as the ones you should check out (although pretty much all are worthy of your attention — the song is THAT good). Humorous footnote: There’s a 1956 film, originally titled “The Way We Are,” that actually was changed to “Autumn Leaves” just to capitalize on the Cole version, high on the charts at the time, that was played over the opening credits! It’s a quintessentially melancholy song about lost love and how autumn can bring back painful memories: “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold… Since you went away, the days grow long, and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song, but I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall…”
“Harvest Moon,” Neil Young, 1992
Ol’ Neil isn’t generally much for sentimental songs, but this one, from his 20-years-later sequel to his #1 album “Harvest,” is an exception. What a marvelous, delicate love song, perfect for a cool autumn evening: “There’s a full moon rising, let’s go dancing in the light, we know where the music’s playing, let’s go out and feel, the night, because I’m still in loved with you, I want to see you dance again, because I’m still in love with you, on this harvest moon…”
“September,” Earth, Wind & Fire, 1978
As Earth Wind & Fire were working on recording this infectious track, band member Allee Willis remembers asking songwriter/bandleader Maurice White, “We ARE going to change ‘ba-de-ya’ to real words, right?’ Maurice gave me one of my greatest lessons in songwriting: ‘Never let the lyrics get in the way of the groove.'” The song went to #3 in the fall of 1978: “Ba-de-ya, say, do you remember, ba-de-ya, dancing in September, ba-de-ya, never was a cloudy day…”
“Forever Autumn,” Justin Hayward, 1978
Incredibly, this melody was first written as a jingle for a Legos commercial in 1969. Jeff Wayne and Gary Osbourne then added lyrics and released it as a single in 1972, which was a hit in Japan but nowhere else. Wayne tried again in 1978 as he was compiling the soundtrack for his “Musical Version of War of the Worlds,” and his dream was to have “the voice that sang ‘Nights in White Satin’ sing it.” His wish was granted when Justin Hayward stepped up, and the result was a #5 hit in the UK (although only #47 in the US). “Through autumn’s golden gown, we used to kick our way, you always loved this time of year, those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now, ’cause you’re not here…”
“November Rain,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1991
For many rock fans, this song tops Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ as the best example of a song that merges thoughtful melody, meaningful lyrics, delicate beginning and blistering hard rock finale. Ax’l Rose, Slash & company were never my cup of tea, but man oh man, this track is absolutely seismic. Turn it up! “Never mind the darkness, we can still find a way, ’cause nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain…”
“Indian Summer,” Poco, 1977
One of the criminally unheralded bands of the country rock genre was Poco, among the pioneers of the merger between country and rock in 1969. With the likes of Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Randy Meisner, Rusty Young, Timothy B. Schmidt and Paul Cotton in their ranks, they flirted with but really never reached the stardom they deserved (although “Heart of the Night” and “Crazy Love” did well in 1979). Do yourself a favor and delve deep into Poco’s repertoire and you’ll find jewels like “Indian Summer” from 1977: “Indian summer is on its way, cool at night and hot all day, ain’t no black clouds filled with rain, Santa Ana wind blew them all to Maine…”
“Autumn Almanac,” The Kinks, 1967
Speaking of unheralded bands, The Kinks may be the #1 most ignored supergroup. Unquestionably influential, delightfully quirky, capable of foppish English pop and hard-ass grunge rock, Ray Davies and his cohorts have an enormous treasure of great material you should take the time to peruse. One lost gem is “Autumn Almanac,” a 1967 single that describes autumn rather nicely: “When the dawn begins to crack, it’s all part of my autumn almanac, breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow, so I sweep them in may sack, yes yes yes, it’s my autumn almanac… Tea and toasted buttered currant buns can’t compensate for lack of sun, because the summer’s all gone, la-la-la, oh my poor rheumatic back, yes yes yes, it’s my autumn almanac…”
“Leaves That Are Green,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1966
In the early days, Paul Simon’s lyrics were steeped in angst and sadness, painted in isolation (“I Am a Rock”), homesickness (“Homeward Bound”) and quietude (“The Sound of Silence”). And yet, his songs offer achingly beautiful melodies, shimmering harmonies and an undefinable sense of hopefulness. Witness “Leaves That Are Green,” which reminds us of how all those gorgeous leaves turn brown and die, but the words are sung to a lilting beat and optimistic bounce. That takes a rare talent, as we have seen in Simon’s 50+ years of songwriting. “And the leaves that are green turn to brown, and they wither with the wind, and they crumble in your hand…”
“Summer Skin,” Death Cab For Cutie, 2005
I LOVE this band. Such wonderful music, engaging sentiments, clever arrangements. Much good music, but look at 2003’s “Transatlanticism,” and especially “Plans,” their 2005 commercial breakthrough, which includes “Summer Skin”: “Then Labor Day came and went, and we shed what was left of our summer skin… And we peeled the freckles from our shoulders… ‘Cause the season’s change was a conduit, and we left our love in our summer skin…”
“Heavy Horses,” Jethro Tull, 1978
In 1976, Scotland-born Ian Anderson, after eight years of cranking out some of the best blues-oriented progressive rock we’ve ever seen, bought himself a salmon-farming operation in his homeland, and spent nearly half of his time settled into a more pastoral, agrarian lifestyle. Jethro Tull remained a major player for a while yet, beginning with the delightful “Songs From the Wood” LP, which reflected his interest in the more organic side of life. Even better is the title track to his 1978 album “Heavy Horses,” a minor masterpiece that succinctly describes the mighty work of the Clydesdales and other massive farm horses who have traditionally done the heavy lifting during the toil of harvest time each autumn: “Iron-clad feather feet pounding the dust, an October’s day towards evening… Bring me a wheel of oaken wood, a rein of polished leather, a heavy horse and a tumbling sky, brewing heavy weather…”
“September Grass,” James Taylor, 2002
One of the best songwriters of the late 20th Century seemed to be running out of gas when he released “October Road” in 2002, a resounding dud which had maybe two or three decent songs instead of the usual eight or nine. One of the standout tracks turned out to be John Shelton’s “September Grass,” the only non-original on the LP. Wonderful lyric, pretty melody, altogether perfect for this mix: “Well, the sun’s not so hot in the sky today, and you know I can see summertime slipping on away, a few more geese are gone, a few more leaves turning red, but the grass is as soft as a feather in a feather bed, won’t you lie down here right now in this September grass?…”
“The Chill of an Early Fall,” George Strait, 1991
Country songwriters Green Daniel and Gretchen Peters teamed up to write this heartbreaker about a person whose lover has cheated in the past, and a former lover has suddenly come around again to upset the balance. Why does this always happen in autumn? “Here it’s comes again, that same old chilly wind will blow like a cold winter squall, and I’ll begin to feel the chill of an early fall, and I’ll be drinking again, and thinking whenever he calls, there’s a storm coming on…”
“Indian Summer,” Joe Walsh, 1978
You wouldn’t expect a hotel-room-wrecking rock star like Joe Walsh to come up with a comforting soft-rock piece like this one, but sure enough, you can find it on his classic “But Seriously Folks” album next to “Life’s Been Good”: “I was taken by surprise by the thunder, sat and stared out at the rain, taken back, I was younger in a vacant lot day, and then fall brought an Indian summer, and plenty of places to play…”
“November,” Tom Waits, 1993
Waits is a surly, cantankerous sort who isn’t prone to explaining the meaning behind his lyrics. “I believe what Dylan said: ‘If you have to explain ’em, they weren’t very good in the first place.'” Like Dylan, Waits writes lyrics that nurture and grow, taking on new meaning the more often you hear them. Check out “November,” a tremendous track from his 1993 LP, “The Black Rider”: “November has tied me to an old dead tree, get word to April to rescue me, November’s cold chain, made of wet boots and rain, and shiny black ravens on chimney smoke lanes, November seems off, you’re my firing squad, November…”
“Autumn Leaves,” Ed Sheeran, 2017
Pity the folks who chose not to buy the deluxe version of Sheeran’s new “Divide” CD, which includes his very fine track “Autumn Leaves.” It bears no relation to the time-honored classic mentioned at the beginning of this piece (but I’ll bet it inspired it): “Do you ever wonder if the stars shine out for you, float down like autumn leaves, and hush now, close your eyes before the sleep, and you’re miles away, and yesterday you were here with me…”
“The Autumn Stone,” The Small Faces, 1969; “September Morn,” Neil Diamond, 1979; “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” The White Stripes, 2002; “Autumn Song,” Van Morrison, 1973; “September Song,” Frank Sinatra; “Girl From the North Country,” Bob Dylan, 1963; “Autumn in New York,” Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1957; “October,” U2, 1981; “The Witch’s Promise,” Jethro Tull, 1972; “Blue Autumn,” Bobby Goldsboro, 1968; “Indian Summer,” Audience, 1972.