It started with Manuela Mameli's version. During a 2011 concert in Sweden, the Italian singer's second turn through the verse overwhelms her. Her band vamps for a few bars as she collects herself then manages to finish in half-whispers, mascara-blackened tears streaming. Every time I've watched it I've wept.
"Autumn Leaves" is that kind of song. Composed in the aftermath of World War II — first in French as "Les Feuilles mortes" — the song expresses grief for a lost loved one as few others have. Famed songwriter Johnny Mercer's English lyrics, first recorded by singer Jo Stafford in 1950, cemented "Autumn Leaves" as a sorrowful counterpart to "We'll Meet Again," the war years' earlier, more optimistic anthem.
I think of "Autumn Leaves" each year when its first line again becomes true. The falling leaves drift by the window, and the song's minor-key melody affixes itself firmly in my head. But the fall of 2020, of course, was different. Stuck at home day after numbing day, like many others I invented a hobby to distract myself, to occupy time as it stretched and compressed, some days seeming endless, others blinking by. I sought out as many versions of "Autumn Leaves" as I could find.
They are not difficult to discover. In the 75 years since the song came to be, according to one historian's count, musicians have recorded at least 1,400 versions. YouTube makes available many more performances recorded live, often by talented amateurs I never otherwise would have encountered.
At first I was interested in the variety of musical approaches to "Autumn Leaves," then fascinated by it, then preoccupied, falling down an internet rabbit hole where I sometimes listened to a dozen or more recordings in a row. The song pervaded my waking life and even echoed through a few of my dreams.
There are the expected straightforward versions that refuse to fix what ain't broke. Backed by orchestral strings, Stafford — now near-forgotten but once the best-selling female singer in the world — set the standard template with her signature purity of tone. The most popular singers of the 1950s followed suit. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, among others, lent their voices to the kind of arrangements that approach making "lush" a pejorative term.
The song seems especially attractive to jazz improvisers, and through the years a pantheon of greats has given it wings. On the classic album "Somethin' Else," the Cannonball Adderley quintet, with Miles Davis on trumpet and Art Blakey on drums, delivers "Autumn Leaves" as an 11-minute odyssey, one brilliant solo following the last. Pianist Bill Evans' trio on the album "Portrait in Jazz" explodes the song, riffing until it is almost unrecognizable, then returning to the melody just in time to resolve it.
Its popularity continues. A 2004 performance by Korean classical guitarist Yenne Lee has been viewed more than 16.2 million times on YouTube. "Hamilton" star Leslie Odom Jr. sings it on a 2014 album. David Sikabwe, whose "Fly Me to the Moon" with a rap verse added went viral in 2019, gave "Autumn Leaves" a similar treatment. Eva Cassidy, Paula Cole and Diana Krall are among the modern singers who have added their versions to the list.
I listened to them all, but I didn't understand why until Manuela Mameli brought me to tears.
The tragic weight of 2020 had amassed in me slowly, invisibly, like silt settling on a lakebed. It was my task to compile local coronavirus statistics, reporting more infections, more deaths each day until, eventually, the suffering the numbers represented became abstract. As confining most of my life to the same three or four rooms became the new normal, the effects of months of near-isolation also had sneaked up on me inch by inch, unnoticed.
An unconscious part of me was seeking catharsis. It took me witnessing Mameli's own release to finally get there, to realize in a sudden swell how painful the year had been, just as experts were correctly predicting the pandemic was about to get much worse.
And soon I'll hear old winter's song, the lyrics go as "Autumn Leaves" reaches its melodic climax. About three weeks into this winter, COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. surpassed 4,000 in a single day for the first time. By spring, more Americans may have died of the disease than the roughly 405,000 who died fighting in World War II.
I plan to keep listening, to continue to gather a music of mourning, to break and keep going and then break some more as lives fall like leaves all around us.