Inside in the warmth of the old hostelry painted red and black over by the fireside looking in desultory fashion on at the end of the bar but thankfully closely through the empty window frames themselves designed and set inside old wooden doors traditional music drew people together as one, as music has always done.
Accordionists rested their instruments on their laps between songs to resume the pushing of buttons and squeezing of air after their break; violinists added rosin to their bows and crouched low to find their fingers in the shadowy dark, keeping time with their feet, a stumble of footfalls in the less stricter passages.
Listening to that fine tasteful accordionist Gabriel McArdle play the Tennessee Waltz I drifted away to other versions of the late-1940s Golden West Cowboys’-derived country song which was written by the scarcely recalled names beyond Wikipedia of Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart.
Sonny Rollins towers up in my mind like a benevolent vision, beyond the bridges, over everything and remains the first and last thought hearing the song. But long before guitar pioneer Les Paul made a version with Mary Ford around the same time as Patti Page did, the singer often most identified with it at least from this distance.
But let’s also remember Anita O’Day, one of the greatest jazz singers of all (in my mind greater than Peggy Lee, in the same bracket not quite but almost as Billie Holiday, Sarah and Ella) and the first artist on the ultimate singers’ label of all, Verve, with This is Anita. The song does not appear there but I mention it, and her version in the audio here strips out a lot of the jazz you may hear in greater quantity elsewhere, as it is so forgotten now. Just how carelessly we throw away or neglect such treasures in our cultural memories defeats me.
Uptempo and certainly more recognisable with our modern ears consigning the 1950s practically to the 1850s a decade on in the very different 1960s which practically made songs like this redundant, Sam Cooke riffs on the song superbly next to breathe life into it still.
The song, a most gentle inuring sweeping breeze in its melody and polka-like motion, attracted male soul singers and none greater in the domain, with the possible exception of OV Wright but that is another much needed discussion, than Otis Redding. His version is slower and has that signature ache which stops you in your tracks. Quite superb.
The waltz still gets covered and the best most recent version I can find is Norah Jones' joyful live take on the song. There are literally dozens of other versions too, some far too straight (Elvis, etc) which do not interest me at all but probably have their steadfast fans plumping for them. And yet for me the story begins and ends with Newk top only because it was his version that I heard first and in some ways remains enough.
Returning to the mood of the song itself despite a certain melancholy in the lyrics there is nothing ominous about its interior vision and yet it tells a sobering tale of disappointment and loss. The words have a devastating potency and relay a story, one not of self pity but almost of unwitting accident. Such is life. The protagonist is dancing with a ‘darling’ and spots a friend who is introduced but then steals the lover away. Recalling that loss the mystery of the dance not the song and crucially not the darling do not cause all this sack of woe the narrative firmly directs. In the coming to terms with the darkness that now envelops everything there is a swallowing of all that pain in that there is no bitterness even as the waltz remains somehow so beautiful and haunting in all its shoe shuffling hypnotic movement and innocent charm. SG