Blue Moons and Buttermilk Skies


Television has hijacked the weather and stolen its mystery. Poetic ruminations about the moon and the stars and the wind have no place in TV’s world of scientific charts: runic arrangements of circles and arrows purporting to denote storm fronts, floods, blizzards, hurricanes, and other natural calamities heading our way. Radio is equally clinical. No pity softens the voice of the weatherperson notifying us that tomorrow’s 96-degree day will have a “real-feel” temperature of 107.

Listening to those grim technicians during the summer’s calamitous heat, I thought of an earlier breed of sky watchers who didn’t take the weather so seriously. America’s songwriters knew in their bones that the weather was not reducible to facts and figures. It’s a state of mind, the stuff of dreams and yearnings.

To lyricists in the guileless 1920s and ’30s the weather was a meteorological playground, and they didn’t hesitate to write about phenomena not necessarily known to science: blue moons, paper moons, stardust, stars falling on Alabama, pennies from heaven, life over the rainbow, and love east of the sun. Rain, ordinarily a spoilsport, could be a lover’s friend (“Isn’t This a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain?”). Even the clouds cooperated. “What’s the good word tonight? Are you gonna be mellow tonight?” Hoagy Carmichael asks in “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” beseeching the sky to “keep a-brushing those clouds from sight” when the boy pops the question to his girl.

Still gazing heavenward, Carmichael explains in “Can’t Get Indiana Off My Mind” that “the force that calls me back home, anywhere I chance to roam, is the moonlight on the Wabash that I left behind.” Later he and that other country boy, Johnny Mercer, would write the ultimate hymn to summer weather: “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”

But, beyond mere nostalgia, the weather served songwriters as a metaphor for a broken heart. In torch songs like “Here’s That Rainy Day,” mainly sung by women, bad weather was bad news, seemingly the end of the world. Of all those rueful ballads my own favorite is the one that has weather in its title. “Stormy Weather,” by the composer Harold Arlen and the lyricist Ted Koehler, was the most famous of a string of hits the two men wrote in the early 1930s for the semiannual revues presented at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. The first vocal recording of the song was made by Arlen himself, who was the son of a cantor and had a high, plaintive voice. Its huge success generated great anticipation when the Cotton Club announced that Ethel Waters would return to the stage–she had been mostly in retirement, grieving over a failed marriage–to introduce “Stormy Weather” in the Cotton Club Parade of 1933.

On opening night, late in the first act, Waters made her historic entrance. Arlen had marked the song “slow lament,” and Waters sang it very softly, starting with the opening declaration, “Don’t know why,” and continuing in the same emotional color: “there’s no sun up in the sky, / stormy weather / since my man and I ain’t together / keeps rainin’ all the time.” By the end it was obvious to the mesmerized audience that she was singing the story of her life.

That kind of weather doesn’t get recorded on any television chart.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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