Wednesday, January 19, 2005



Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys, Tennessee Waltz.

"Tennessee Waltz" is more modern than it seems--the first time I heard a version of the song, I assumed it hailed from the Depression or earlier, but its first appearance is this 1948 rendition from the song's composers. It's also a postwar musical rarity in that "Tennessee Waltz" is not linked to any one performer--Patti Page did perhaps the best-known take, but the "Waltz" ultimately remains partnerless, open for anyone from Leonard Cohen to Sally Timms to take a turn with it.

For the song's narrator, the Tennessee Waltz is the moment when the world cracked open, and he is left only to ponder what might have been, writing new lyrics for the music he associates with disaster. What tortures him is the music that played while he was devastated was so wonderful--he can't help replaying it in his head until it seems as though the waltz has never ended, forever pacing him through his humiliation. "Only you know how much I have lost," he sings--to who? Not his ex-lover. The listener? The waltz itself? There is so much unspoken--what did his friend say to his lover as they danced? Did they just leave the dance together, leaving the singer alone? Otis Redding in 1966 offers a little more--Otis already knew his friend posed trouble before the fateful dance. "I didn't know I was gonna see him," he pleads.

Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart wrote the song in 1946 after they heard Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz" and figured there'd be some money in writing a similar waltz for Tennessee. They put lyrics to an instrumental piece they had been playing for a time, "No Name Waltz," and recorded it in Chicago with King on accordion, Stewart on vocal and fiddle, and Roy Jewell Ayres on steel guitar.

Released on April 3, 1948, "Tennessee Waltz" was a #3 country hit for both King (whose version can be purchased here) and Cowboy Copas that year, Roy Acuff scored with it the following year, Patti Page brought it to the pop mainstream in 1951 and it became the Tennessee state song 15 years later. But Redding's soul-wracked version, in which he curses the music while forever swearing to its beauty, remains my favorite.

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