As he was browsing through an expanse of old country music at the Record Archive on Rockwood Street, a familiar name caught the eye of Robert Bredvad, a third year Advertising Photography major. “I thought someone had the same name,” he said, but on the cover grinned an unmistakably younger Bill Destler. Bredvad had stumbled upon a tattered and worn copy of now-President William Destler’s 1973 LP “September Sky.”
Public knowledge of Destler’s album is not new; Destler discussed it in a local newspaper article last year, but many students have only begun to discover it. “September Sky” harkens back to the 1970s, a time of social activism and burnt draft cards — a time when peace, love and rock-and-roll reigned supreme. Largely a relic of its time, it captures the then 26-year-old Destler, a grad student who would someday become RIT’s
Bredvad, who could hardly believe his find, bought the album for three dollars and tax. His Jan. 11 tweet of the album cover, and other posts, brought to attention an artifact from some 37 years ago.
FOLK IN ITHACA
“I vaguely remember arriving in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1968, with a suitcase in one hand and an old beat-up-hard-to-play Framus guitar in the other thinking for sure that the only reason I wasn’t famous was because I was too modest to allow myself to be discovered,” reads the opening to the album’s liner notes, signed by Destler.
While in Ithaca, Destler would pursue a doctorate in Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell, which he obtained in 1972, some four years later. When he wasn’t studying during that period, Destler says, he was playing music.
Ron Rutowski, a fellow Cornell graduate student and now a professor at Arizona State University, plays guitar with Destler on most of the album.
“Ithaca, I believe during the 1960s in particular, developed a very vibrant folk music scene and this folk music scene persisted into the 1970s,” says Rutowksi. Folk, traditional, and bluegrass were the sounds of 1970s Ithaca.
“There was, in particular, a place on campus,” says Rutowski. “It was in one of the law school buildings. It was called Anabel Taylor Hall, and in that building there was sort of a stone walled and floored foyer that had a very high domed ceiling, and the acoustics in there were really astounding and a lot of folk musicians used to go into that place and just sit there and play.” He and Destler met through connections formed there and at jam sessions within the Ithaca folk scene.
Rutowski recalls Phil Shapiro’s still-running folk radio program “Bound for Glory” as a key part of that community. In 1973, Shapiro approached Destler to make the album for a newly created label called Swallowtail Records.
“The circumstance on this album, it wasn’t done in a studio. It was done in the living room of somebody’s house,” says Rutowski. The house, out in the country, was isolated from the interfering noise of the city. “He [Shapiro] had set up microphones and a tape recorder, and we went over there,” says Rutowski.
After agreeing on some musical arrangements, the pair recorded the album over about two days.
MUSIC AND LYRICS BY DESTLER
The album is mainly an acoustic affair, marked by Destler’s trademark croon. Layered guitars add a warm, vibrant feel to the music. The production is tight and straightforward, simplistic by modern standards. Two melodic standouts are “Septembersong” and “Go Jump In A River.” The former, catchy in tune and lyrics, starts the album with a
tale of reunion:
Sing back September sky
there’s only you and I.
Yesterday she called to say she’s free.
Tired of being alone,
she’s on the road back home
and Lord it’s time you had a song for me.
This brisk opening is followed by “Go Jump In The River,” a tongue-in-cheek hate song that the liner notes describe as his first kept song. Say the notes: “…because a few people liked it (all of whom instantly became my best friends) I started to write songs on a more or less regular basis.” Destler wrote all but 2 of the 12 songs on the album.
Popular music at the time also lent its feel to Destler’s compositions. “Back in those days, that was really the time when James Taylor first came onto the scene,” he says. “He was a great influence on an awful lot of people who played, including me, and so there’s a fair amount of his influence in what I wrote during those days.”
“It was also a period of some social consciousness, and so there’s at least one song on there that had to do with a friend of mine who went to Canada rather than going into the military in the Vietnam War,” Destler says.
That song, a somber, slow-paced tune called “Pack The Flag Away,” is about the brother of one of Destler’s grad student roommates. The lyrics discuss the separation the brothers experienced:
Be gone today brother.
They won’t let me stay sister.
Have to go my way mother,
though I hate to go.
Hate me if you will lover,
but I cannot kill another.
Won’t let them steal my brother
without the final note.
“A fair amount of the album is just love songs of various kinds,” says Destler.
BIG IN KOREA
Destler doesn’t think many copies of the vinyl album were made. Most internet references to the album are from overseas and, in
“It is interesting, maybe this stuff all comes around at some point, about a year ago I got contacted by somebody from Korea interested in reissuing the record,” says Destler. “Who would have thought I’d be a popular artist in Korea?” Does he think he is? “No,” says Destler with a laugh.
“I have fond memories of that period, but I will say that it, to some extent, sort of feels like a picture of you when you were very young,” says Destler. “You know, you go home and your parents show your friends the pictures of you when you were a baby, and you sort of feel like this was an awful long time ago, and to have it sort of resurface is kind of,
I find it, amusing.”