I tried so hard my dear to show that you’re my every dream.
Yet you’re afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme
A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold cold heart
— Hank Williams (1951)
I am one of many to come to this song late, made aware of it only when jazz pianist (I’ve also seen her tagged as a “torch” singer) Norah Jones covered it on her debut album, “Come Away With Me,” in 2002.
It’s always impressive, to me, when an artist takes a song that begins firmly in one genre — in this case, country — and wills it into something completely different. That’s what Jones did in de-twanging and slowing down the song and making it so rich, so luscious, so tender, so luxurious that Williams’ original lyrics shine through, I think, like never before.
A good measure of this song, and its lyrics, is that Jones was far from the first to try to do it differently. Williams’ song was covered by all sorts throughout the years. Dinah Washington. Jerry Lee Lewis (and his pumping piano). Tony Bennett, with his voice still young in 1951, managed a soaring orchestral version. Nat King Cole did a swingy big-band bit. Bill Haley, a former country singer who, with His Comets, went rock and roll later with “Rock Around the Clock,” took a pretty straightforward country run at CCH. Aretha Franklin pulled off a soulful version that was fantastic. Jed Clampett played it down the middle.
Nobody made it his or her “own” more than Jones did, though, on an album that catapulted her into international musical stardom.
((An aside: Over my years as a sportswriter, I listened to hundreds, maybe thousands of different takes on “The Star Spangled Banner.” By country singers, by opera singers, by rock singers, by gospel singers and rappers … you name it. Some were awesome, many were awful and even more fell somewhere in between. It became a running gag among sports scribes in Cincinnati pressboxes to remark, after a less-than-memorable rendition — or, especially, one in which the performer just tried way too hard — “[She or he] made that [his or her] very own.”))
Jones, who I learned in researching this post is the daughter of Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar — the guy influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds and others and played at Woodstock — slows down “Cold, Cold Heart” and turns the steady strumming beat into something much sneakier but just as captivating. More, her breathless voice, on certain beats and on certain lyrics, takes the song where no one else imagined.
The live version, ^, is different than the one on “Come Away With Me” (which is part of the charm, of course, of live performances). On the album version, the second line from this lyric,
And so my heart is paying now
For things I didn’t do
is just spot-on cool as hell, one of many such phrases in her performance. (It’s at 1:10, on the link above, if you care to listen.)
A friend in Cincinnati burned a CD of “Come Away With Me,” when that kind of thing was done, and passed it on back in the early ’00s. It’s still, I swear, in the CD player of my 10-year old car. (Because, one, it’s that good and, two, whoever changes CDs in their car? Honestly, I can’t name the other five in there … if there are five more in there.)
While I’ve been stuck on that debut album, Jones’ career has gone well. She’s won nine Grammys. She’s sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. She just turned 40.
The song that will stick with me, though — as long as it’s in the dashboard of my car, anyway — is one she didn’t write (and one, rumor has it, that may not even belong to Williams). Still, the way she sings those beautifully penned lyrics, heartfelt and stinging in their simplicity, makes it official: She’s made that song her very own.
Here’s Hank’s original version: