The Original “Autumn Leaves”

Written by

It’s hard to believe that autumn will be here in just a few days, but the fading light of dusk has already begun to signal the end of summer. Some people love fall, especially in places where the autumn foliage explodes into a rhapsody of reds and oranges. Others lament the passing of long, summer days and warm, sunny weather. Some of the poets I read in school equated the coming of autumn, cold weather, and snow with impending death. That’s probably why we find so many bittersweet songs about the fall season. My previous shows in 2015 and 2016 featured seasonal playlists, so I thought I’d focus on one of my favorite autumnal songs this time around—the classic “Autumn Leaves.”

Autumn Leaves has been covered many times by different singers. The 1945 French original was called Les Feuilles Mortes (as in “Dead Leaves,” which might be more appropriately translated to “Dry Leaves” or “Still Leaves”), with lyrics penned by Jacques Prévert. The French poet and screenwriter ran with the bohemian left bank set after World War II and found fame writing the screenplay of Marcel Carné’s epic film, Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). Yves Montand, among other French chansonniers, recorded entire albums of Prévert’s poems. Les Feuilles Mortes was originally set to music written by Joseph Kosma for another one of Carné’s films, Les Portes de la Nuit (The Gates of the Night).

Interestingly, many English variations of the lyrics exist as loose translations of the original poem. Johnny Mercer penned the most popular English version, recorded by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and others. In general, I find that the English versions lack the emotional depth of Prévert’s original. Somehow, the French version sung by Yves Montand has always struck me as darker and sadder. Listen and compare Montand’s Les Feuilles Mortes with Nat Cole’s recording of Autumn Leaves. (Cole also recorded a version in French, but his French accent is even worse than his Spanish one, unfortunately.)

Now listen to Nat Cole’s version of “Autumn Leaves” in English:

I found a pretty good English translation of the Prévert’s original lyrics here:

“Autumn Leaves”

Oh I would like you so much to remember
The joyful days when we were friends.
At that time, life was more beautiful
And the sun burned more than it does today.
Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful.
You see, I have not forgotten…
Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful,
So can memories and regrets.
And the north wind takes them
Into the cold night of oblivion.
You see, I have not forgotten
The song you used to sing me.

Compare the above to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics below, which connote wistfulness and longing, but not the somber feeling of the original French version:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburnt hands I used to hold
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
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

So what do you think? Which one do you prefer?

Photos courtesy of Pixabay, used under a Creative Commons CC0 license.