Do you remember the 21st night of September? I don’t. I’ve racked my brain trying to remember something significant about 9/21 and I got nothing.
The question is the opening lyric of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit “September.” According to Allee Willis, who co-wrote the song with Maurice White and Al McKay, EWF’s founder/leader and guitarist, respectively, “twenty-first” just worked better than “twentieth” or “nineteenth” or the 18 other dates the songwriters tried.
The song’s continuing popularity helped turn the 21st into the unofficial but still commemorated Earth, Wind & Fire Day.
The song, if you’re one of the handful of sentient humans who don’t know it, is upbeat and joyous, which makes it unusual as far as songs about September go.
Songwriters have used the ninth month to invoke the passage of time, September representing the end of youth and the onset of old age.
In “September Song,” the narrator vows to spend the “precious few” days he has left to live with the one he loves. Even so, Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics conjure more melancholy than marital bliss, a sentiment reinforced by Kurt Weill’s sad, sweet melodies.
“September Song” was the final track on Frank Sinatra’s September of My Years, a concept album about aging, regrets, the shadow of death, you name it. Sinatra recorded the album on the cusp of his 50th birthday and sings like a man sipping Scotch and staring into the abyss. Death would not darken his door for another 30-plus years but his September brought the first chill of autumn, not the last warmth of summer.
September has remained a metaphor for melancholy. Witness Green Day’s “Wake Me When September Ends,” in which Billy Joe Armstrong sings mournfully that “Summer has come and passed.”
So Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” would have stood out simply for not being morose. However, it’s obviously got more than that going for it.
There were precious few periods between 1975-1981 when EWF didn’t have a hit in heavy rotation, so “September” was about as guaranteed a hit as a song can be.
But that doesn’t account for its 21st century surge. What does?
In a word: joy.
The song is 3:35 of exuberant, life-loving joy. It is wonderfully free of irony and cynicism. It’s warm, celebratory and optimistic.
When’s the last time you heard a hit that expressed joy so freely and openly? I don’t remember.