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|Single by Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys|
|B-side||"Your Cheatin' Heart"|
|Published||December 2, 1952Milene Music|
|Recorded||September 23, 1952|
|Studio||Castle Studio, Nashville|
|Genre||Country, Honky-tonk, country blues|
|Songwriter(s)||Hank Williams, Fred Rose|
|Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys singles chronology|
Hank Williams was from Alabama, and would vacation on Lake Martin. The Lake Martin-area was once the home of Kowaliga, a former unincorporated town and a historically African-American community that was active from roughly 1890 until the mid-1920s. When the song was written it was originally Kowaliga, but Fred Rose changed the spelling to "Kaw Liga" in order to focus on the storyline. In 1953, "Kowaliga Day" was proclaimed by Alexander City Mayor Joe Robinson.
"Kaw-Liga" is one of just a handful of songs that Williams wrote with Fred Rose, who produced his records and published his songs through his company Acuff-Rose. Rose often "doctored" the songs Williams composed, making suggestions and revisions, with biographer Roger M. Williams (no known relation) noting that Rose's contribution to Williams' songs was probably craftsmanship, whereas Williams' was genius. Roy Acuff later recalled:
Hank would come up with the ideas, and Fred would say, "Well, write it down and let me look at it." Hank'd bring it to Fred, and Fred would sit at the piano and compliment Hank and say, "Maybe you can express this a little differently, let's change it a little bit," but Fred never changed Hank's thinking.
The song tells the story of a wooden Indian, Kaw-Liga, who falls in love with an "Indian maid over in the antique store" but does not tell her so, being, as the lyrics say:
Too stubborn to ever show a sign,
Because his heart was made of knotty pine.
The Indian maid waits for Kaw-Liga to signal his affection for her, but he either refuses or is physically/emotionally unable (interpretations vary) to talk. Some interpret Kaw-Liga as a stoical Native American stereotype; however, the subject of masculine pride and emotional hardness is a popular one in country music, and the then-common "dime-store Indians" (which were the store's way of advertising that they sold tobacco) being made of unmoving wood was a perfect symbol of an aversion to expression of emotion. Because of his stubbornness, Kaw-Liga's love continues to be unrequited, with Hank Williams, the narrator/singer of the song lamenting,
Poor ol Kaw-liga, he never got a kiss,
Poor ol Kaw-liga, he don't know what he missed,
Is it any wonder that his face is red?
Kaw-liga, that poor ol' wooden head.
The song ends with the Indian maid being bought and taken away from the antique store by a buyer, leaving Kaw-Liga alone, and he
As lonely as can be,
And wishes he was still an ol' pine tree.
Recording and release
The song was recorded during Williams' final recording session on September 23, 1952, at Castle Studio in Nashville. The session also produced "I Could Never Be Ashamed of You," (written for his soon-to-be wife Billie Jean), "Take These Chains From My Heart" (also written by Rose), and Williams' signature ballad "Your Cheatin' Heart." ' More than any other song, "Kaw-Liga" bears evidence of the guiding hand of Rose, who moulded the song into nothing like Williams had recorded up to that point. It begins in a minor key, which modulates into a major key on the chorus, and also features big-band drummer Farris Coursey, who had played brushes on Williams' previous song "Moanin' the Blues" and played in WSM's dance band. In addition, the song fades out, the only Hank Williams song to do so. Williams is also backed by Tommy Jackson (fiddle), Don Helms (steel guitar), Chet Atkins (lead guitar), Jack Shook (rhythm guitar), and Floyd "Lightnin'" Chance (bass). The single was released posthumously in January 1953 on the MGM Records label and it remained No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart for 14 weeks. The flipside, "Your Cheatin' Heart, remained at No. 1 on the country chart for 6 weeks.
A demo version of Williams singing "Kaw-Liga" with just his guitar, likely recorded in 1951, is also available. On the recording, Williams misplays a chord and can be heard muttering "shit" before starting the song again.
- Marty Robbins included it as the opening track of his self-titled 1958 LP.
- Johnny and the Hurricanes released an instrumental version of the song in 1963.
- The hillbilly comedy duo Homer and Jethro included a parody entitled "Poor Ol’ Koo-liger" on their 1963 album The Humorous Side of Country Music. This album also included a parody of "Your Cheatin’ Heart", which they transformed into "Your Clobbered Heart".
- Del Shannon recorded it for his 1964 album Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams.
- Charley Pride took a live version of the song to No. 3 on the country singles chart in 1969.
- Loretta Lynn recorded it in 1969.
- Roy Orbison recorded it for his tribute album Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way in 1970.
- Doc Watson recorded a version for his 1974 album Two Days in November.
- Hank Williams's son, Hank Williams Jr., recorded a cover which peaked at number twelve on the Billboard country singles chart in the summer of 1980. Williams Jr. also performed the song on a television special with Johnny Cash.
- The avant-garde band The Residents recorded the song for their 1986 album Stars & Hank Forever: The American Composers Series, replacing its original backing music with the bassline of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. This may have been a reference to Williams' wife, who was named Billie Jean.
- Roy Clark and Joe Pass recorded a two-guitar instrumental version for their 1994 album Roy Clark and Joe Pass Play Hank Williams.
- John Soderling recorded it for his 2018 album Old Hank's Country Songs.
- M. H. Benders used it for a poem his 2022 book Gedichten om te Lezen in het Donker.
- Escott, Colin; Merritt, George; MacEwen, William (1994). Hank Williams: The Biography. New York: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0316249867.
- "U.S. Copyright Office Virtual Card Catalog 1946-1954". vcc.copyright.gov. Retrieved September 9, 2021.
- "Hank Williams 78rpm Issues". jazzdiscography.com. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
- Huntley, Harold (March 20, 1953). ""Kowaliga Day" Program is 'Success'". The Alexander City Outlook. p. 1. Retrieved March 6, 2023.
- Carlton, Bob (April 23, 2013). "Kowaliga Restaurant, a Lake Martin landmark that dates back to the early 1950s, gets ready to reopen". al.com. Retrieved March 5, 2023.
- Morris, Bilal G. (February 14, 2022). "The Black Town Under Lake Martin: A Father & Son's Dream Of Greatness". NewsOne. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
- Schafer, Elizabeth D. (November 1, 2002). Lake Martin, Alabama's Crown Jewel. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 104–105. ISBN 978-0-7385-2390-3.
...he asked Rose to travel to Alabama to compose the music. Rose retitled William's Kowaliga as "Kaw-Linga" and focused the story on the dime store Indian
- Escott, Merritt & MacEwen 1994, p. 124.
- "Journal of American Indian Education-Arizona State University". asu.edu. Archived from the original on November 1, 2006.
- Escott, Merritt & MacEwen 1994, p. 324.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 388.
- Jim Dawson, & Steve Propes (1992). What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record. Boston & London: Faber & Faber. pp. 111–114. ISBN 978-0-571-12939-3.
- Escott, Merritt & MacEwen 1994, p. 328.
- "Wes Anderson's Asteroid City Soundtrack Out from ABKCO Digitally Today". Focus Features. June 23, 2023.