US Senator Lamar Alexander and his wife, Honey, along with three other couples, have given UT the original manuscript of “Tennessee Waltz” to be displayed prominently in the university’s new Natalie L. Haslam Music Center.
In December 1946, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart wrote “Tennessee Waltz” on the back of a large matchbox while returning to Nashville from a show in Texas. King and Stewart, upon arrival in Nashville, transferred their song from the matchbox to a sheet of music. The original sheet music of a song is known as a “lead sheet.”
The tune, made famous by singer Patti Page, would become one of Tennessee’s official state songs, be recorded by more than 500 musical artists, and sell more than 10 million copies. It has been cited as the most popular song in the history of country music.
Alexander presented the lead sheet to Haslam today before playing “Tennessee Waltz” on the piano for her and a gathering of the music center’s supporters.
“The right home for the songwriters’ original manuscript of the state song that has become the most popular song in the history of country music is the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center at our state university,” Alexander said. “According to music historian Robert K. Oermann, finding this historic document is ‘like finding the Magna Carta of country music.’”
Oermann is an entertainment journalist, who has written seven books on country music. He is a columnist for MusicRow, an industry trade publication.
“We are thrilled that this unique piece of Tennessee’s legacy will now become part of the university’s history, said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “We are grateful to Senator Alexander for this wonderful gift and know it will continue to inspire musicians who come to study and perform at the university.”
“It is so perfect because this is where country music was born in East Tennessee,” said Haslam. “To have this song that we all have loved for so long where it should be, and not locked in a closet somewhere, I’m thrilled to death. For people born in this area, it will make them so proud.”
In August the Alexanders, Ashley and Lew Conner, Denise and Steve Smith, and Colleen and Ted Welch purchased the lead sheet from Joyce Collins Ball. Ball and her sister, Darlene, were members of the Collins Sisters and Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys entertainment troupe when the song was written.
King noted to his biographers that he and Redd Stewart had changed the bridge of their original “Tennessee Waltz” composition after a suggestion from their publisher. The manuscript given to UT bears the crossed-out words and penciled-in substitutions.
Alexander, a Maryville native, is former president of the University of Tennessee. He also is the only Tennessean to be popularly elected both governor and US senator. He served as governor from 1979 to 1987. He also previously served as US secretary of education. As senator, he is the ranking member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Lew Conner is a Nashville attorney. Ted Welch is a Nashville businessman and real estate investor. Steve Smith is chairman of the board of Haury & Smith Contractors Inc.
The Natalie L. Haslam Music Center opened in August and is home to the School of Music’s more than 350 students. Watch the video below to learn more about the building.
To learn more about the UT School of Music, visit the website.
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