What is the song that always puts a smile on your face? You sing along while wistfully recalling that time long ago that you first heard the song. You know what you were doing. You know who you were with. Maybe, you even remember the smell of the room. You sing along. Or you tap your toes, bop your head up and down, or maybe you even get up and dance. Yeah, you know the song.
For me, that song is always “September,” by the amazing 1970’s funky soul band Earth, Wind and Fire. Founded by lead singer and songwriter Maurice White in Chicago in 1969, the group relocated to Los Angeles where they added members and found their sound. The band was big, decked out in ornate costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian royalty, and they played a unique combination of rock, funk, disco and soul music. They were excellent musicians and flamboyant performers, and their songwriting and production appealed to fans across different musical genres.
“September” was released in November 1978, right smack dab in the middle of my peak B’nai Mitzvah party going years. The song was a monster smash, making it all the way to top of the charts. I must have heard it at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah party I went to for a full year. That familiar intro horn riff. The repeating sing along refrain of “Ba, di, ya, dancing in September.” We smiled. We sang along. We awkwardly danced with each other during the Snowball dance, always sure to keep each other at arms length.
And then the Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties came to an end. I went from middle school to high school. I discovered artists like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Squeeze. “September” was not being played on any of the radio stations I listened to. College came, and with that so did Los Lobos, Steve Earle and Robert Cray.
But every now and then though, I would catch “September” on the radio, and I smiled every single time. Every. Single. Time. I love this song. I love, love, love this song. It is buoyant and cheerful and happy. It is beautifully produced, and it sounds as fresh and bright today as it did 40 years ago.
We first hear a duo of electric guitars, playing a catchy lead backed up by a connective rhythm. Cowbell and drums soon join in, and then we are blissfully, beautifully slapped in the face by the horns. Everything is in a complete, locked-down syncopation, and then the music stops on a beat. The vocals begin.
“Do you remember, the 21st night of September?
Love was changing the minds of pretenders
While chasing the clouds away.
Our hearts were ringing, in the key that our souls were singing
As we danced in the night
Remember how the stars stole the night away.”
These may be the most vapid, empty lyrics of any classic song that I love this much. These words mean absolutely nothing, but…we get to “night away…” and we all sing along and let that “ay” way stretch out and repeat as the music reaches a climax to the joyous, exuberant wave your hands in the air because we just don’t care chorus and we are singing and dancing…and this is the best song ever!
“Hey hey hey
Ba de ya, say do you remember
Ba de ya, dancing in September
Ba de yan, never was a cloud day.”
In a band as big and talented as Earth, Wind and Fire, it is not surprising to learn that some songs don’t come easy. The chord progression of “September” was written first, then lead singer and lyricist Maurice White wrote the lyrics.
The band asked him “What the fuck does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?” Maurice White replied “Who the fuck cares?” Songwriting 101. That’s all you need to know.
The story, such as it is, continues. People are in love. It is September. They are dancing and they are happy. But don’t listen to the story, just listen to the music, to the singing. The rhythm stays consistent while horns come in and out, and we sing along “Ba de ya, ba de ya.”
The question of what makes “September” so catchy, so resonant, is thoughtfully considered in a great story on NPR. NYU music theory professor Jeffrey Peretz is asked what makes the “September” groove so powerful.
Peretz points to the yearning, as suggested in the very opening line of the song “Do you remember?” The song brings generations together, all while leaving the specific meaning, the specific memories up to us. “There’s four chords in the chorus that just keep moving forward and never seem to land anywhere — much like the four seasons,” Peretz says. “It’s the end of summer, it’s the beginning of fall, it’s that Indian summertime, it’s the transition from warm to cool.”
Whatever the reason, this song is my youth. This song is happiness and joy. I can sing to this song. I can dance to this song. I can pass my love of this song to my daughters, and maybe one day, to their kids as well. I expect I will be able to because, even after 40 years, this perfect song still sounds brand new.
Written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis
Performed by Earth, Wind and Fire
Released November 18, 1978