If the organ is my favorite musical instrument, as I wrote in the post on Dave “Baby” Cortez, then for a long time my least favorite was the steel guitar. The twangy, whiny sound was part of the reason, but mainly it just always seemed too obvious. Sticking steel guitar into a song was shorthand for “tragedy” in country songs or for “country” in rock songs (and, I suppose, shorthand for “Hawaii,” but that doesn’t really come up as much). Over the past few years, though, I’ve reclassified steel guitar into the category of “lethal when mishandled, but also has acceptable uses,” alongside saxophone and recorder.
“Sleep Walk” is one of those occasions where steel guitar works, perhaps because doesn’t fall victim to any of the cliches of the instrument. It’s there to add a benignly eerie feeling, like seeing the familiar parts of your house turned unearthly through the gauze of insomnia. The minimal drums and electric guitar are the still of the night, interrupted but not disturbed by the somnambulist weaving through the shadows. The yearning melody line implies that this sleepwalker stirs from romantic longing, whether from temporary separation from a lover or from unrequited desire. It was this combination of spectral atmospherics with earthly concerns, though not quite as poignant as the description may suggest, that enchanted teenagers well familiar with mooning over their crushes while the rest of the house slept. 6
Hit #1 on September 21, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
19 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.97% through the Hot 100