One Song Leads to Another

I’m somewhat obsessed with how songs evolve. I was thinking of just that when listening to the latest album from the lovely Miss Tess, whose latest album with the Talkbacks is “The Love I Have for You.” She sings a Hank Williams tune called “The Alabama Waltz,” which is uncannily similar to the huge Pee Wee King/Redd Stewart hit “Tennessee Waltz” (recorded by Patti Page, Patsy Cline and many others).

Musical borrowing has gone on forever, of course. Bob Dylan cribbed freely from old Appalachian tunes and British ballads for tunes such as “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” “Percy’s Song” and “Paths of Victory,” among many others.

miss tess

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks sing “Night Life” at Rockwood Music Hall March 20. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Williams’ mimicry was no coincidence. Miss Tess tells me, “Actually the ‘Alabama Waltz’ was written by Hank Williams to try and get a hit song, after the notable success of the ‘Tennessee Waltz.’ It was actually first recorded by Bill Monroe—and something of a hit from that recording I believe. There’s also a ‘Kentucky Waltz.’ There was a day when state waltzes were popular I guess!”

Definitely so. According to Colin Escott’s biography of Hank, the King of Country wrote and recorded the “Alabama Waltz,” to “stoke the ongoing craze for state waltzes.” Monroe—a tried and true Kentuckian—had earlier had his hit with “Kentucky Waltz,” but recognized Williams’ star power and also recorded “Alabama Waltz” in 1950. Williams may well have been at the session. Here’s Hank’s “Alabama Waltz.”

On the same album, Miss Tess does a slam-bang version of “Night Life,” a Willie Nelson tune whose chorus goes, “Oh, the night life/It ain’t no good life/But it’s my life.” I saw Miss Tess do a wonderful version of the song at a Rockwood Music Hall show in New York (with the incomparable Mike + Ruthy) last week.

That darned song reminds me heavily of another great classic, “Sporting Life,” as recorded by Brownie McGhee, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Clapton and tons more. The chorus of that one goes, “That old night life/That old sportin’ life’s/ Killing me.” Not identical, but to my mind closer than suing George Harrison for ripping of “She’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord.”

Judge for yourself. Here’s Willie Nelson doing “Night Life”:

And Happy Traum having fun with “Sportin’ Life”:

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