Waltzes Old and New

11 October 2012

Amid the scores of performances we at Team Curly have shared with you over the years, we’re not sure that any of them are waltzes. We’re therefore going to redress this shortcoming with a double dose of waltzes— let’s call it “the waltz in two steps.” First up, here’s a contemporary waltz that songwriter Emy Phelps wrote about two beloved canines:

Though it’s centuries old, the waltz is still a young musical form when compared to the ancient Anglo-Irish balladry and fiddle tunes that undergird so much of bluegrass. Even so, waltzes have been part of bluegrass from the start. Bill Monroe would leaven his sets of hard-driving bluegrass with a waltz or two, and he claimed that the first composition to which he ever set lyrics was a waltz, “Kentucky Waltz,” which he recorded in 1945. That was back in those prehistoric times when the primordial soup of country music encompassed the sundry offshoots of mountain and cowboy music. Indeed, it was around the same time that a couple of purveyors of Western Swing, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, penned a waltz that today is a favorite of many bluegrass bands. Here’s a lovely version of their song, “The Tennessee Waltz” as performed by Hot Mustard:

According to Wade Hall’s biography of Pee Wee King, there is a direct connection between “Tennessee Waltz” and bluegrass, for it was in fact by listening to Monroe’s just-released “Kentucky Waltz” that King and Stewart were inspired to write their song. Small world.

Of course, at the heart of the waltz is a dance, and I’ve often wondered if the enduring popularity of waltzes in today’s bluegrass scene owes something to ongoing cross-pollination with swing dance music on one side and contra dance music on the other. Just a theory. As always, yer input is most welcome.

Both groups featured in this week’s videos have been busy of late. Hot Mustard has just released a debut CD, Hot Mustard Live at Mole Hill Theater that nicely captures the group’s old school charm. You can buy a copy at the band’s website. Over the summer, Phelps and Anger played gigs across the country. To check on upcoming shows, seek them out on Facebook or visit Darol Anger’s website. Phelps has a new CD entitled Look Up, Look Down. You can hear excerpts from it on SoundCloud.

Yer Pal— Curly


  1. I play trad/folk Irish music and I remember my original mandolin teacher telling me to play for a ceili. (Irish dance) The discipline of playing for dancers teaches, among other things, strict rhythm. Maybe the longevity of the waltz is due to the fact that we all learn rhythm from playing dance tunes?

    • Good point. While we’re on the subject of Irish music, it occurs to me that there are lots of Irish tunes in multiples of three (be it 3/4, 6/8 or 9/8) that probably predate the waltz but that still have that swinging rhythm.

      • The Jigs and Slip Jigs you’re referring to are both dances. Personally I fond them some of the hardest to keep a steady rhythm to. Give me the waltz any day. 🙂

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