December 17, 2016


Understanding the Hillbilly Shakespeare : Review: Mark Ribowsky, 'Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams' (Joseph Bottum, December 17, 2016, Free Beacon)

This is someone, after all, whose friends and band-mates were already worried about his heavy drinking in late 1939, when he was 17--and that was before he added amphetamines, chloral hydrate, and morphine to the mix. He couldn't read or write music. Couldn't soar in his singing, in any traditional sense. He could play the guitar pretty well, having been taught when he was a child by an African-American street performer named Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, who gave him lessons in return for meals during the Depression. But he was never more than a run-of-the-mill professional, lacking the superior skills of the studio players. Oh, add a little fiddling, a little tinkling on the piano, an ability to carry his part in the close harmony that Southern church music taught, and there isn't much doubt that Hank Williams was a genuine musician. It's just that there were dozens of others who were as good or better at all that.

What made Williams different, what lifted him above the other performers of his time, was his presence--a persona that came through in his singing and playing. Between his constant touring and his regular radio shows, he played perhaps a thousand of other people's songs, and he wrote over 150 of his own before his early death.

Maybe more to the point, he managed to write not just songs but classics, following each of the templates of true American compositions. Has there ever been a weeper as good as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"? Among his famous bouncers are "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" and "Hey, Good Lookin'." And his Christian-driven music includes the much-covered "I Saw the Light"--although I think "The Angel of Death" is a better marker of the religious feeling that actually moved him. [...]

Hank Williams knew the music that Harlan Howard once simultaneously dismissed and lauded as "nothing but three chords and the truth." The real heart of American music lies somewhere in a mix of Civil War marches and Methodist hymns, African rhythms and British folksongs. It's a kind of muddy cauldron of God and sex and death, joy and sorrow, class resentment and race, booze and barn-dancing. You do a little hell-raising Saturday night, a little church-going Sunday morning, and on Monday you pick out on your guitar something that tries to speak to it all.

Maybe we get from that just another entry in the endless category of "My Baby Done Left Me All Alone" songs. Or maybe we get another "Gonna Get Drunk and Wrassle a Bear" ditty, or yet one more reminder that "God's Great Fire Is Comin', Sooner Than You Think." But every onc't, we get "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," or "Hey, Good Lookin'," or "The Angel of Death." Every onc't, we get Hank Williams.

Posted by at December 17, 2016 7:30 AM