Sam Cooke’s “Tennessee Waltz”: A Cultural Geography

With his rendition of "Tennessee Waltz" for his 1964 Copacabana shows, Sam Cooke proceeded to do the impossible: he made the waltz swing.

Only Sam Cooke would have the nerve to trash-talk Patti Page, the all-American white-bread pop sweetheart of the ’50s. On the live album recorded at one of his 1964 Copacabana shows, Cooke hoarsely yells out a ragged prophecy while his horn section plays the driving intro of what turns out to be an arrangement of the “Tennessee Waltz”, penned by René Hall: “Patti Page did this not too long ago; she wouldn’t recognize it now, baby, believe me! She would — look — !”And with that jagged aside, he dissolves into laughter. Words are insufficient to communicate to the audience how much he will alter the number; he must show rather than tell. Cooke then proceeds to do the impossible: he makes the waltz swing.

The waltz! A signifier of upper-crustness from the salons of Vienna to the ballrooms of the United States, it’s a dance form inextricably bound up with notions of whiteness. The most notable thing Hall did to ratchet up the hip quotient of the inherently unhip waltz was to set it not in 3/4 time (triple meter) but, improbably, in 4/4 time. If you think you can’t hear this enormous difference, listen to Patti Page’s 1950 version of “Tennessee Waltz” and try counting the beats of the song out loud like this: 1-2-3, 1-2-3. That pattern of three is woven into the DNA of a waltz; it’s what makes a waltz a waltz, and Page’s version honors the dance’s customary metrical profile. Now listen to Cooke’s rendition and try counting that 1-2-3 pattern: it won’t work, since the beats of the arrangement are ordered in groups of four. By fundamentally altering the metrical patterns of the song, he de-waltzed an iconic waltz, with attendant cultural and historical ramifications.

Cooke is covering the song, and the liberties he takes with this particular cover score a direct hit of musical revenge for all of the spayed and neutered Pat Boone renditions of black rhythm-and-blues tunes. The audacity of the “Tennessee Waltz” cover is striking, a musical sucker-punch landed at New York’s Copacabana, bastion of sophisticated white entertainment and the same turf on which Cooke flopped so badly in 1958. Six years later, he was back to claim victory. Success on the supper club circuit had always been his aim, with Nat “King” Cole a particular idol in this regard. Cooke longed to be perceived as the polished, cool guy who appealed to crossover markets — code for “white folks” in the music industry of the 1960s. According to Peter Guralnick, Cooke used “Tennessee Waltz” as an encore during his wildly successful 1964 Copa gigs, “putting the crowd away with songs with which he was able to identify but, more important, which they could also claim as their own.”

When Cooke staked his musical claim to “Tennessee Waltz”, he transformed what could have been a smooth jazz cover of the sort he admired so much into a driving soul number backed by a swing band that sounds like it had poached from Booker T. and the M.G.s. He sacrificed the chance to embody cool sophistication in order to give the audience a bit of the hard-driving gospel music that had nourished him. His church heritage peeked out in ragged improvisational phrases that would have been alien to Patti Page: on Sam’s tongue, the tame “my friend stole my sweetheart from me” morphed into “that dirty dog stole my baby away from me!” His improvisations climax at the end with an off-the-cuff paean to the night they were playing “that beautiful, that marvelous, that glorious, that cotton-picking ‘Tennessee Waltz’.”

According to Daniel Wolff’s interview with Cooke’s guitarist Cliff White, Cooke had failed at the Copa in 1958 precisely because he tried to shave down these uneven gospel edges to fit into the smooth mold of a crooner, which didn’t work because “that wasn’t his act… his act was to go out there and preach a little bit. That was Sam Cooke. Go out there and horse around with people and relax and talk that jive bullshit and preach them a little sermon. That’s what his whole act was: a Baptist preacher’s sermon.” When Cooke returned to the Copa in 1964, secure and confident in his own performance ethos, he won the crowd over with snippets of Baptist sermonizing that he worked into the cover of “Tennessee Waltz” and the rest of his set. His rough-and-ready waltz effectively ripped off the anemic Tin Pan Alley mask he had stiffly tried to adopt six years earlier, mistakenly thinking he could wear it well enough to please the Copa crowd.

As Cooke transforms the squared-off rhythms into hip-swinging patterns, the gentle teen lament into a frayed cynical groove, and the white rendition into a distinctively black one, he does it all with a song evocative of the South, the place where Cooke himself had been born and which in 1964 was bowed under particularly heavy racial burdens. “Tennessee Waltz,” Cooke’s cover of it, and the singer’s own autobiography lie at the nexus of white-black, North-South, sacred-secular, and rural-urban geographical, cultural, and historical axes. Cooke was born in the Mississippi Delta, but grew up in Chicago, one of the many micro-Canaans that southern African Americans headed for in the early 20th century. He actually did waltz down to Tennessee many times in his late teens as his quartet, the Highway QCs, attempted to launch their career from the gospel-friendly base of Memphis. Several decades later, after a meteoric ascent in and abrupt departure from the gospel world, the Delta-born singer found himself in a posh New York club, wailing a country song about a waltz whose title traded on the cultural cachet of the troubled US South.

Despite his Chicago raising, New York gigging, and eventual purchase of a California dream home, Cooke never forgot his black southern fans’ allegiance, mindful of how quickly it could evaporate if he was perceived as selling out on his own race in the entertainment industry. When weighing how much of Jim Crow to endure on his southern tours, Cooke made his decisions based on empathy for southern blacks: “When the whites are through with Sammy Davis, Jr., he won’t have anywhere to play. I’ll always be able to go back to my people ’cause I’m never gonna stop singing to them. No matter how big I get, I’m still gonna do my dates down South. Still gonna do those kind of shows. I’m not gonna leave my base.” Just as Cooke’s career cut physical swaths through the United States, his recorded output (especially his gospel songs) mapped a metaphorical cartography through a mythical land, asking wearily “How Far Am I from Canaan?” and imploring the listener to “Come and Go to That Land.” The “Tennessee Waltz” was just a stop along the way.

By the mid-’60s, “Tennessee Waltz” had also traversed complex geographical terrain, literally and metaphorically. According to country music historian Bill Malone, it was written in 1948 by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart for the Rose-Acuff publishing firm and first released as a hillbilly number that same year. Despite its introduction into the music industry through the barn door of the country charts, and although it describes having a partner stolen while dancing to a song titled “Tennessee Waltz”, the song does not clarify where its narrator is dancing. Aside from its title, the piece actually embodies a certain rootlessness. The lyrics are regionally non-contingent — the action could be unfolding in the hills of Tennessee or on the parquet floor of the Copacabana, thus lending the song to successful co-option by a Patti Page or by a Sam Cooke.

Although his cover of “Tennessee Waltz” de-ruralizes it, Cooke’s gospel-inflected soul-meets-swing-band style ensures that the song still codes “southern,” only in a very urbane way. Its sonic blend reifies Daniel Wolff’s assertion that Cooke was “determined to have chitlin and glitter” in his career. The urgent horn section blasting its relentless non-waltz groove while Cooke hollers (something he didn’t often do in his pop music) inscribes a new and postmodern authenticity onto the old country standard. Page’s sweet and lilting lament was anonymous; it could have happened to everywoman, or not happened to any woman at all — the listener receives it implicitly as a nice little fiction. But when Cooke imprints his gospel ethos on it — an ethos that above all else, prizes the personalization of a song — it is borne home as historical fact. The way he testifies, you really believe it happened, wherever it may have happened, and the song leaves you wondering: What kind of a jerk steals a girl from Sam Cooke?

Carrie Allen Tipton writes and lectures about classical music, American popular music, religion, and Southern culture. Her work has appeared in PopMatters, Deep South Magazine, the Black Music Research Journal, and the Journal of the Society for American Music, among other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Georgia, and her research on gospel and rap has been featured on KUHF’s “The Front Row” and in the Houston Chronicle. Formerly on faculty at the University of Houston-Downtown, Tipton currently teaches piano at the Campbell Learning Center in Houston, and remains active as a collaborative pianist.

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