Just in time for Valentine’s Day, or perhaps for the swollen eyes and aching head that come on the day after a bad one, I read a mighty fine post on the Perspective Collective
website written by a friend of mine, D.A. Latta and Cindy French, entitled “The Sadness Soundtrack
.” It’s exactly what you think it is, but better. French’s thoughts on Les Miserables and “the cruelest of all loves: the unrequited,” helped, as good writing will do, to clarify my own thoughts about a song that’s haunted me.
Hank Locklin wrote Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On in 1949, but it didn’t do much of anything for him then. It’s strange the way the world works though and that’s not the end of the story. Locklin was born in McLellan, Florida on February 15, 1918 and raised in Florida’s panhandle. While that panhandle doesn’t quite have the country music fame as the one in West Texas, I imagine there’s enough heartache in this ol’ world for both to share. McLellan is one of those hard to find places on a map. It sits as far North as you can be in the panhandle and still be in Florida. That is to say you could spit into Alabama if you wanted to. In this small timber town, where the Blackwater River State Forest meets the Conecuh National Forest, Hank Locklin first picked up a guitar and began to sing. I can’t say if this is where he first broke his heart.
The song is a simple one. The plaintive cry of unrequited love. In today’s turned about world it could almost come across as creepy. A man asks for the pillow his ex sleeps on, so he can sleep on it too. But, it’s not creepy, so much as sad. True unrequited love is painfully aware and this guy knows she’s gone and isn’t coming back. It’s the sadness of acceptance that causes him to ask for this one small favor. He would, or course, rather live in the dream.
The 1949 version is a straight-up honky tonk weeper with it’s steel guitar kick off and chunka chunka two step rhythm. The band is really quite extraordinary and considering the hot hits of the day like Red Foley’s Tennessee Saturday Night, Jimmy Wakely’s I Love You So Much It Hurts, George Morgan’s Candy Kisses, Eddy Arnold‘s Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle, and Hank Williams’s Lovesick Blues, all number ones in 1949, it’s odd Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On didn’t even chart. It’s easily as good as the best of those and better than some of them, too.
Jump forward nine years and Locklin’s still holding onto the song. By now, in the wake of God forsaken rock ‘n’ roll, Nashville has undergone a colossal change. Gone are the reedy tenors and nasal twangs of 1949. Gone are the whining steel guitars and country fiddles. In their place are crooners and back-up singers, slip note pianos, folky rhythms and even some inspired whistling. Songs like Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me, Johnny Cash’s Ballad of a Teenage Queen, Faron Young’s Alone With You, The Everly Brothers’ All I Have To Do Is Dream, and Marty Robbins’ The Story of My Life all hit number one in 1958. And this time, a re-cut, cleaned up version of Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On shot up to number five.
Locklin still sounds country, but only perhaps because he couldn’t help himself. The production is smooth with a little snakey guitar buried deep in the mix noodling the melody, a chorus of background singers to ooh and aah and a tinkling piano winking at it’s country roots. Best, or worst, depending on your perspective, is the soaring wordless vocal which takes over where the steel guitar once was. In a sweet piece of fate that soaring wordless vocal over this tale of unrequited love is provided by Millie Kirkham, the same woman who did it on George Jones’ He Stopped Loving Her Today. Throw in her singing on Blue Christmas and she practically becomes the femme fatale of country music.
I like both versions of Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, but I’m partial to the 1949 cut. Whatever pain had first inspired the song had faded over those nine years and while the 1958 version is slicker, wiser and maybe even a bit cynical in its sweetness the first cut is indeed the deepest.