Let’s Dance! (A Story In Waltz Time)

One night in the foggy past, circa 1983 I suppose, I was at the Cherry Tree Music Co-op, a long-deceased and seriously-missed folk music venue in Philadelphia. A Cherry Tree devotee, I took in at least 150 shows there. Anyway, on the night in question the band that commanded the stage played a song that has stayed with me all these years. I have no recollection of who the band was. But the song? It was Waltz Across Texas, which I’d never heard before. It is as sweet and pure a number as you ever will encounter.

I recall that the band’s lead singer mentioned that Waltz Across Texas is a tune by Ernest Tubb (1914-1984), a country music legend. And indeed his fans craved his version of it. However, as I discovered on the day that I began to compose this essay, the song was written not by Ernest but by his nephew Talmadge Tubb, a country music semi-obscurity. Hell, Talmadge Tubb deserves to be as famous as Ernest on the basis of this one song alone.

When we dance together my world’s in disguise, it’s a fairyland tale that’s come true.
And when you look at me with those stars in your eyes,
I could waltz across Texas with you.
Waltz across Texas with you in my arms, waltz across Texas with you.
Like a storybook ending I’m lost in your charms,
And I could waltz across Texas with you.

Ah, beautiful. And let’s add some music to the fine words. Here’s Ernest Tubb performing the song:

Now, I like music that rocks and roars. But I also enjoy the slow and uncomplicated, such as Waltz Across Texas. And ever since that fateful Cherry Tree evening I’ve held a soft spot in my heart for songs written in waltz time, of which Waltz Across Texas, almost needless to say, is an example. Waltz time’s one-two-three, one-two-three rhythmic pattern seems to perfectly mesh with my emotional makeup. When I hear a worthy waltz-time number, such as Bob Dylan’s Winterlude or the Eagles’ Take It To The Limit, I start to soften and melt . . . and then I dreamily drift within a higher realm.

All of which leads us to the morning of February 23, 2019, a Saturday. The living room radio was tuned to WXPN, a Philadelphia station that I’ve mentioned so many times on these pages, its general manager should make me an honorary DJ. I was communing with the living room sofa when my ears perked up at about 9:45, caught by a soft, alluring song issuing through the speakers. One-two-three, one-two-three it flowed. The repetitiveness of the beat induced that softening, melting and drifting syndrome. The song was Johnny’s Blues, written and recorded by little-known Denny Brown in 2008. A pared-down look at insecurity, at the difficulty so many people have in feeling at home with themselves and with the world, Johnny’s Blues is a country waltz lifted, as many country waltzes are, by fiddle playing that bores deep into your heart.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t get Johnny’s Blues out of my head. And it became the spark for the story that you now are reading. Yeah, for a long time I’d had it in mind, amorphously, to write something or other about pop music waltzes. At last the story began to become clearer to me. And the story’s biggest point emerged after dinner on the following day.

Truer words never were written than these: I can’t dance worth a shit. Man, I sucked at dancing even when I was fairly nimble and agile. But nimble and agile are not words that have applied to me, a septuagenarian, for the last 10 years. Awkward as a motherf*cker is more like it. Yet there I was, following dinner on Sunday the 24th, waltzing around the living room with my wife Sandy, in search of story-writing inspiration. We glided to the accompaniment of Johnny’s Blues, courtesy of YouTube.

We didn’t set the world on fire with our performance, but we weren’t bad. That’s one of the beauties of waltzes: Even an oaf like me can move to a waltz pretty well, since it doesn’t require any amazing techniques. All you have to do is become one with the music, hold onto your partner, and ease yourself from here to there to there.

It was fun. We got into it. Hey, we hadn’t danced in years, so we were overdue. And you know what? I believe that we’re going to dance again, occasionally, in our living room. To songs in waltz time more likely than not. Dancing, I realized, is very freeing. It’s a natural thing to do. But I ain’t about to enroll in a dance class to learn, after all these years, how to shake my boney booty to hip-hop or swing music. I’m too inhibited for that. Nor shall I invade a local mosh pit and become the oldest nitwit ever to jump and spin spasmodically at a punk rock concert. Yo, not only am I inhibited, I’m also fragile! Better that I stick to my living room and to waltzes with Sandy.

At long last you have the opportunity to listen to the song that I’ve been making a fuss about. Perhaps it will inspire you to dance inside your house. Here then is Johnny’s Blues, by Denny Brown. Before I remove my fingers from the keyboard, though, I’ll say what I always seem to say at the ends of my pieces: Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.

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If (A Musical Story)

a2z_logo_final_social-620x324If, if, if. If only WXPN, a supremo radio station in Philadelphia, hadn’t come up with the idea to play almost 6,000 songs in strict alphabetical order, based on their titles, then I’d never have been flailing around helplessly in the monstrously deep rabbit holes that abound within my cranium. But XPN did, starting at 6:00 AM on November 30 with The Jackson Five’s smash hit ABC (click here to listen), and proceeding around the clock for what seemed like forever. The station finally closed the lid on the affair mid-day on December 17 after airing a song that just about nobody knows, ZZ Top Goes To Egypt (click here), by a band that just about nobody knows, Camper Van Beethoven. A tune with a title that begins with a double Z . . . who’d have thought that an animal like that exists? Leave it to the music worshippers slash obsessives at WXPN to come up with a stunning conclusion to the marathon.

And talk about obsessives. Me, I thought I was done with being one of them. Over the last few decades I’d shed a good ninety percent of my excessive tendencies. Still, backtracking happens, and I found myself being swallowed whole by what XPN was up to. Yeah, I got so involved with the A-to-Z my bodily systems started backfiring. For days I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. Even worse, I didn’t watch my favorite episodes of Duck Dynasty and The Real Housewives Of Atlanta over and over on demand. And not just because I was hopelessly involved in listening to that avalanche of music. Uh-uh. I also had been captured by letters, words, the whole alphabet thing. I was beaming in hard on alphabetic considerations of song titles. Pathetic, man.

I’d never before given more than a cursory thought to the words that song titles begin with or to the patterns that the titles form. Who knew that tons of titles begin with Just, for example? Or that there might be any titles starting with X (such as X Offender, by Blondie). Or that some letters (e.g. T, S and I) are the first letters of an astounding number of song names. Or that one artist (David Bowie) might show up with back-to-back songs (Fascination and Fashion), so tightly are their names alphabetically related.

“What’s going to follow Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot?” I frantically wondered during December 3rd’s early moments, unable to come up with the fairly obvious answer that soon hit the air: Dancing Days by Led Zeppelin. And I frantically wondered about countless other minutia throughout the A-to-Z, following along online as XPN posted each addition to its playlist (click here to see the playlist). Letters! Words! Sequences! My geeky and anal ponderings were getting the best of me. I needed relief, blessed relief. Who or what might be my savior?

“Snap out of it, you fool!” my wife Sandy commanded me, eight days into XPN’s extravaganza, as she dumped a pitcher of cold water onto my head. I was seated on the living room sofa, ears glued to the radio. “Thanks, Sandy, I needed that,” I said as the refreshing liquid ran lovingly from my head to my toes. I rose, gave Sandy a well-deserved hug and walked across the floor to turn off the radio. Over the following days I continued to listen to XPN, but in reasonable servings.

I guzzled many hundreds of the thousands of songs that spewed from WXPN’s studios during the festival. Great music abounded, yet one song more than any other brought me up short and went straight to my heart. It’s an oldie that most folks know. And, for reasons unknown, I heard it — no, felt it — much more powerfully than ever I had before.

Many sublime songs (Love Train; I Love Music . . . ) flowed from the minds and pens of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but did any equal or surpass If You Don’t Know Me By Now? No way. Gamble and Huff, two of the progenitors of The Sound Of Philadelphia that soulfully and majestically conquered the world in the 1970s, surely realized that they had created a diamond when the writing sessions for that number reached their end. What a song, its finest version being the 1972 original by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. It’s a manifesto about the need for trust and honesty and, more than anything, a declaration of true love. You quiver when Teddy Pendergrass, lead singer for HM&TBN, unleashes pleas robed in frustration. When the rest of the group fills in all the blanks with angelic vocals that cushion and counterbalance Teddy’s hot emotions, you levitate and maybe find a few tears drizzling down your cheeks.

Sandy doesn’t know this yet, but one evening soon I’m going to dial up If You Don’t Know Me By Now’s number, turn the volume to a gentle but firm level and swirl with her around our living room. The song is in waltz time, and even a four-left-footed sloth like me can handle a waltz. Here, then, is the best song I know of whose name begins with If.