The Infinite Jukebox: Dinah Washington’s ‘September in the Rain’

The biggest divide in music, for me, is between my parents’ music and my music. Until my early teens, the former was the only music I heard: there was no such distinction. At home in Brigham Street, I would play contentedly downstairs whilst my mother did her housework to the accompaniment of the Light Programme. No other music existed. The only records I do remember hearing from that era are Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey’s ‘Freight Train’, ‘The Laughing Policeman’ from Charles Penrose and The Beatles’ ‘All My Loving’, which might just be the first ‘pop song’ I ever heard.
When we moved to Burnage Lane in 1966, Mam no longer had the radio on. Instead, having bought a for-the-times very impressive stereo radiogram, it was LPs, especially when my father wired an extension speaker into the breakfast room, which led to many meals being accompanied by albums playing in the lounge.
It was still all their music. I heard of pop but didn’t hear it, although that slowly broke down with Junior Choice on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but it was not until the Xmas School Holiday of 1969/70 that I started to listen to Radio 1 daily, all day, and the chasm between me and them opened. Them and me, and though they’ve long since passed on, the difference remains, and I have an automatic block against ‘their’ music’.
But to everything as always there are exceptions. Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘When I fall in Love’, Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers, and Dinah Washington’s version of ‘September in the Rain’ recorded in 1961, an American Top 30 hit and one solitary week in the UK singles chart.
If I heard that song whilst playing in the living room in 1961, it’s lost now. Instead, I date it to 1972, or perhaps 1973. Mam had reverted to Radio 2 around the house, and it was on the station’s equivalent of a playlist, though I associate it with one of our post Low Bleansley self-catering cottage holidays, playing in the mid-morning whilst my little sister and I waited for the grown-ups to decide where we were going today.
Nothing about the song flips any of my usual switches. It’s only just two minutes long, though it doesn’t sound overly short. It’s just the usual thing, a swirling orchestra in the introduction, a tinkling jazz piano, lazily playing the melody, and Washington’s vivid yet relaxed voice making none of the noises that grabbed my ear. Yet it stuck in my mind, and forever after I’ve turned to listen every time it’s been played.
Maybe this is just another example of what I’ve said over again, that no matter how much you may dismiss or even hate a genre of music, there will always be songs that find their way past your most extreme of prejudices, to confuse, but ultimate entertain you. I can’t think of a much more improbable example if that’s what it is.
So the sound is strange, and I usually have little interest in the lyrics of professional songwriters, spinning clever but ultimately hollow rhymes, but that’s not quite so here. The song is a gentle meditation on how time and weather can manipulate your feelings, and how the time of a time can override what you feel on a different day and return you to that moment when the whole world was in tune with how you felt. The leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember, that September, in the rain, and though Spring is here, to me it’s still September.
Like so many of those Sixties songs that sketched out the outcome of love lost and left the listener to invest the deeper events for themselves, ‘September in the Rain’ doesn’t hold its audience up with explanations. We don’t know what happened in September, but we know loss when we hear it, and the heart’s inability to hold on forever to what it had.
Dinah Washington invests the song with a melancholy that answers all questions, turning the lyrics into a resignation. It used to be and now it’s not, and as long at that’s so, it’s September and the leaves blow in the wind. And the music I regard as my own, the songs and the sounds my generation claimed for themselves, are not the only things that can speak to us of the things that never last as we want them too.
I grew to understand melancholy far too young and for reasons that pre-dated the love of eros. We all of us in that cottage, on that day, lived with the loss that couldn’t be healed. Dinah Washington’s mellow tones remind me that it was not a new feeling for any of us.

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