January-February 2013

The Day the Music Died:
January 1, 1953

By Ross Altman

Hank_WilliamsBefore Buddy Holly, before Ritchie Valens, before the Big Bopper…there was Hank Williams. On New Year’s Day in 1953 the heart of country music was broken; the Shakespeare of Country Music died in the backseat of a powder blue Cadillac in Oak Hill, West Virginia on his way to a booking in Canton, Ohio. “Ol’ Hank” was just 29 years old when he died, the same age as English Romantic Poet Shelley when he drowned in the Gulf of Spezia.

But he had earned that nickname. “We’ll go Honky Tonkin’ round this town” wasn’t just a song; it was a way of life, and he lived it to the hilt until it made him old before his time and killed him. He died from the same lethal combination—prescription painkillers and alcohol—that got him unceremoniously kicked off the Grand Old Opry just a year before—the biggest star ever so disgraced. The pain Hank Williams became famous singing about wasn’t just psychological; he was born with Spina Bifada Occulta, which made him double over with sharp stabbing twinges of pain nearly every day of his star-crossed life.

This Hillbilly Shakespeare’s music has endured for sixty years past the sad night he self-induced heart failure and joined the ranks of such Romantic poets as Percy Shelly, also dead at 29; Lord Byron, dead at 36 from a fever while fighting for Greek Independence, and John Keats, who died at 26 from tuberculosis.

Unlike Joe Hill, who became a great songwriter because he had a great subject—the industrial labor movement—or Woody Guthrie, who became a great songwriter because he had a great subject—the Dust Bowl—or Bob Dylan—who became a great songwriter because he too had a great subject—war and civil rights—Hank Williams had no subject but his own existential despair and troubled marriage; he wrote about the human condition, which is pretty much the same in all times and all places. His songs spoke straight to the heart—unmediated by whatever was going on around him in the public sphere. In that sense he was the pure, unfiltered, unsweetened original American songwriter—if you like American music, you like Hank Williams—because that is where it started. His simplicity is profound: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; that is not just Hank talking—it is Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre (on a good day), it is Adam before Eve, talking to God. It doesn’t get more basic than that.

Hank Williams - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

The Hank Williams Songbook is the Bible of American songwriting; the Old Testament; all that followed is Talmudic Commentary.

The irony is that once those songs were written, they never had to be written again; and yet every country songwriter who grew up on him, from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson to Merle Haggard, has written them again, and again.

Where do country love songs start? With Hank’s Hey Good Lookin’—a perfect love song—straight out of the Garden of Eden—when Adam first laid eyes on Eve.

Where do country betrayal songs start? With Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart—straight out of the original temptation—when Satan held up the forbidden fruit that Eve had been told not to touch.

Where do country train songs start? With Hank’s Long, Lonesome Whistle—straight out of the banishment from the Garden, condemned to wander, in Steinbeck’s wonderful title phrase, East of Eden.

Where do country abandonment songs start? With Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart—straight out of the Book of Job.

Where do country drinking songs start? With Hank’s Honky Tonk Blues.

And who was the Wandering Jew in Country Music? Hank Williams—Luke the Drifter—his alter ego for songs that were deemed to be so sad even Hank Williams couldn’t have written them, like A Picture From Life’s Other Side, about an abandoned wife and mother who takes her own life.

Hank Williams - Pictures From Life's Other Side

But Hank has Good News too; the Gospel According to Hank Williams—his pristine perfect hymn I Saw the Light is the beginning of Country Music’s New Testament.

Hank Williams - I Saw The Light

Like Adam, Hank was expelled from the Garden when he was fired from The Grand Ol’ Opry—just a year before he died.

Like Job, Hank’s faith was tested—again and again—by the boils he was cursed with—Spina Bifada and the numbing back pain it caused—and yet his faith endured and he continued to “Praise the Lord—I saw the light.”

And finally, like Christ, his body was found stretched out on the cross—slumped over in pain he was finally released from in the back seat of the Cadillac he died in—by the young kid he had hired to take him to the New Year’s Day bookings he could no longer drive himself to.

Hank’s life and death mirrored his songs—they were Biblical in every regard. Every songwriter who has come down the pike since then walks in his long shadow—and is proud to acknowledge it.

A year and a half after he died, a young Johnny Cash walked into Sam Phillips’ office at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, fresh out of the army with a knapsack full of songs he had started writing on base. He asked Phillips if he could audition and showed him the songs. But Phillips didn’t believe that this Arkansas hick had actually written them. He insisted that if Cash could write songs, let him prove it right then and there: he sent him into a closet with his guitar and told him to come out when he had written a new song.

An hour later Johnny Cash emerged with a new song that could have been but wasn’t written by Hank Williams—Cry, Cry, Cry; Sam Phillips signed him on the spot. A few years later, in tribute, Cash recorded a small album of four Hank Williams’ songs, and later still, he recorded The Night Hank Williams Came To Town, by Bobby Braddock and Charlie Williams (no relation):

The Night Hank Williams Came to Town

Written by Bobby Braddock and Charlie Williams

C                                            F

Harry Truman was our president

G7                                                 C

A coke and burger cost you thirty cents


I was still in love with Mavis Brown

C                            G7                        C

On the night Hank Williams came to town


I Love Lucy debuted on TV

        G7                                        C

That was one big event we didn't see


Cause no one stayed at home for miles around

C                                 G7                        C

It was the night Hank Williams came to town

F                                                        C

Momma ironed my shirt and daddy let me take the truck

D7                                                                         G7

I drove on out to Grapevine and picked old Mavis up

C                                                         F

We hit that county line for one quick round

C                            G7                        C

On the night Hank Williams came to town


A thousand people sweltered in the gym

        G7                                                     C

Then I heard someone whisper hey that's him


That's when the crowd let out this deafening sound

C                       G7                                  C

It was the night Hank Williams came to town


On and on he sang into the night

G7                                                        C

Jambalaya, Cheating Heart, I Saw the light


How'd they get Miss Audrey in that gown

C                            G7                        C

On the night Hank Williams came to town

F                                                    C

Mavis had her picture made with Hank out by his car

D7                                               G7

She said he sure is humble for a Grand Ole Opry star

C                                               F

Mavis said why don't we hang around

C                                  G7                          C

It ain't often that Hank Williams comes to town

F                                                         C

While Hank signed his autograph on Beaulah Rizner's fan

D7                                            G7

Mavis got acquainted with the Drifting Cowboys Band

C                                                        F

The effect on all our lives was quite profound

C                            G7                        C

Johnny Cash - On The Night Hank Williams Came to Town

Everyone who knows anything about Hank Williams knows he was married to “Miss Audrey,” Sheppard and she inspired some of his best songs, including Cold, Cold Heart and the comic take on the same situation Move It On Over. So many times did she break his heart it was only a matter of time before they would get divorced.

America’s greatest songwriters continue to be drawn not only to Hank’s songs, but his story—his emblematic role in the history of country music—indeed homegrown American music, for in a real sense, Hank is where it begins. The great Tin Pan Alley songwriters—Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, they write out of an immigrant’s consciousness—both first and second generation; one sees the Statue of Liberty in their songs, one feels Europe in the background and knows America, “land that I love” is their salvation, the new world, as Emma Lazarus so eloquently described it, “The New Colossus.”

But Hank Williams’s songs take America for granted; they grow out of her own soil as naturally as an oak tree.

And yet, “Hank Williams” is a naturalized work of art every bit as much as “Bob Dylan” recreated himself out of “Robert Zimmerman,” son of a Minnesota Jewish shopkeeper, or “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” recreated himself out of “Elliott Adnopoz,” son of a Brooklyn Jewish surgeon.

He was born “Hiram King Williams,” in Mount Olive, Butler County, Alabama, September 17, 1923, and only when he “decided to run for office,” as it were, and go into show business, did he change his name into something more suitable for country music. Only then was “Hank Williams” born.

It’s really quite a wonderful story—reminiscent of Charles Dickens in the totality of which a hero like David Copperfield is self-created, “a posthumous child,” as he describes himself, capable of becoming something entirely new, as Hank Williams eventually did.

In 1935 he met black street singer and blues artist Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne when his family moved to Georgiana, Alabama, where black and white music co-existed, despite the legal segregation between them. He credited Payne as his only teacher, and learned to play the blues, including chords, chord progressions, bass runs and songs as well, including one of his earliest hits, My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It. In exchange for guitar lessons Hank’s mother Lillie made meals for “Tee Tot” (short for teetotaler) or Hank paid him 15 cents. Through Payne’s mentoring Hank became our first white blues singer.

His father worked for the railroads, so Hank came by his love of trains and all they represented naturally. The family moved around as the company kept relocating his father, and they eventually wound up in Montgomery, where in 1937 Hank first became a radio star as “The Singing Kid” on WSFA. Figuring he was on his way he dropped out of school to take the job. A few years later he was fired for drinking; the pattern was set.

His life-and-death struggle with alcoholism, the disease that eventually killed him, was foretold in Roy Acuff’s blunt early warning to him, “You’ve got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.” I’ll Never Get Out of The World Alive was his prophetic last song released during his lifetime.

Sixty years after Hank Williams died, it is the million-dollar talent that we remember.

Ross Altman is producing, hosting and performing in The Day the Music Died—a Tribute to Hank Williams on the 60th anniversary of his death, January 1, 2013 at The Talking Stick Coffeehouse, 1411 Lincoln Blvd, Venice, CA 90291 from 7:00 to 10:00pm; 310-450-6052 . Performers on the bill include Mike Perlowin, Mike McClellan, Carol McArthur, Robert Morgan Fisher and Michael Simmons. It is free and open to the public.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com


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