That’s just it Minnie, There ain’t no light. (Hank Williams to Minnie Pearl)1
Hank Williams has become one of the most influential Singer Songwriters of any genre. The era of the ‘family’, was the age that brought Hiram King Williams2 to prominence. He was influenced by the society and culture of post war America; He brought people of different races together with his gospel music, and made intelligent social commentary with his relationship songs.
Hank Wiliams first pricked the public consciousness in 1947 when his first single, ‘Move it on Over’ was released, two years after the Second World War ended. It was the beginning of the baby boom, and the nuclear family became the epicentre of society. However, Williams own experience was not of a strong family unit. His father was treated for post traumatic stress after the First World War, and was admitted to a medical unit whilst Hank was young. He was raised by his mother and sister, instilling a lasting respect for women, yet he still had a very cynical view on relationships. Williams expresses a view shared by Fred Pfeil, of the ‘deoedipalisation of American society’3. He touched on subjects such as infidelity, divorce, and parentless children. This was revolutionary; it was a taboo subject in popular music. These views had never before been expressed so openly, but Williams realised the “potential for resistance”4 to the cultural norm. In this “resistance” he adopts a postmodernist view, questioning the boundaries of class and gender that surrounded him. Williams often took from personal experience.
By the time he died, aged only 29, he had been married twice and had an affair that led to a child. It was disputed when he died which wife would be in charge of his estate, as his second marriage took place before the divorce was finalised for his first marriage. These struggles that he had to overcome make songs such as “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy,” and “Mansion on the Hill” all the more poignant. Williams also had a problem with addiction, and he died on the 1st of January 1953 from an overdose of a mixture of drugs and alcohol. Hank was fired from the Grand Ole Opry in 1942 for alcohol abuse, and he is the only member never to be reinstated. Opry member Roy Acuff was quoted as saying of Williams, that he had “a million-dollar voice…but a ten-cent brain.”5
In 1948 Hank Williams released ‘Lovesick Blues’, which shot him to the peak of his career, and he was crowned the ‘King of Country Music’. ‘Lovesick Blues’ was the first real pop/country crossover; it was a predecessor of the Rockabilly years of the 1950s. It got to number 1 on the country charts and 24 on ‘Billboards Hot 100’. This is one of the few tracks that was not written by Williams, but by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills. It does not employ Williams’ usual use of prosody; Williams’ songs are often slow and sombre, yet this song is remarkably upbeat (perhaps the source of its crossover appeal). However, the yodelling is emotive, as if Williams’ voice is breaking, as if crying. It is in the bridge that we discover the reason for the “Lovesick Blues,” that is: “She don’t care about me.”6 This is significant because the time that it was released was the “Golden Age of the Family,”7. Williams disputed this, and as a result “forty five of Hanks 50 most important songs deal with relationships…and 15 of those deal with unrequited love.”8 It was a pleasant change from the overly romanticised songs emerging from Tin Pan Alley at the same time. It is also worth noting that songs that dealt with unrequited love were most often associated with Female black singers, like Billie Holiday, and this further broke down barriers of race and gender, which previously played a major role in country music.
Hanks’ cynicism was in tune with the nation in turmoil, dealing with the Cold War. People lived in a constant state of fear and apprehension, and although Williams’s music does not speak of the cold war, it forms an outlet for these emotions. There were two very different sides to Hanks character. This was exacerbated throughout his career; he went as far as performing under the pseudonym of ‘Luke the Drifter.’ At which point he started recording gospel style readings over music. When Hank was a child, he “attached himself to black street singers Rufus Payne…and Connie McKee.”9 These men became role models and major influences in Williams’s life and later career. He sang and wrote many gospel songs, such as “I Saw the Light,” and they were equally as popular as his relationship songs. In this he brought together a black and white audience, fusing the country music (white music, as it was then perceived) and gospel (black music). The fusion expanded his audience and changed the atmosphere in the Country Music business.
There was one major way in which Williams’s music differed from traditional black gospel; he had an obsession with death, but did not mention the chance of heaven or redemption. Yet Williams did not live the religious life of which he sang. “Closer to the Grave Each Day”10 is one of his more morbid religious songs. The word “grave” could easily be substituted for heaven, and it would be reminiscent of one of the Carter Family’s gospel style tunes of the same era. Williams was shunning the religious conformities of that age. He accepts in the song that Jesus “died to wash your sins away,” yet he does not say “our,” as if he is exempt from redemption. He also mentions letting Jesus “lead you home” but without a mention of heaven, and the refrain being “We’re getting closer to the grave each day”; implies an eerie morbidity.
Hank Williams was one of the most successful singer songwriters of all time. He has left behind a legacy, and has become musical royalty. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame11 in 1961 (the first year of the Hall of Fame); perhaps because in his time he broke the boundaries and conformity of race, gender and society as a whole. What he wrote had a wide appeal, and his cynicism resonated with the nation at the time. Hank Williams wrote about life as he saw it and in doing so brought country music to a much wider audience; for the first time country music was popular all over America. He was so influential that artists are still asking “Did…Hank really do it this way?”12
1 Leppert, R and Lipsitz. (1993). Age, the Body and Experience in the music of Hank Williams. In: Lewis, G. All That Glitters. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press. p22-38.
3 Fred Pfeil, “Postmodernism as a structure of feeling” Marxism and the interpretation of Culture, L Grossberg and C, Champaign, University of Illinois, p381-405
4 As 1
5 Escott, Colin (1894), Hank Williams: The Biography, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
6 Williams, Hank. (1949). Lovesick Blues. Sterling Records.
7 As 1
8 Blaser, K. Pictures from Life’s Other Side: Hank Williams, Country Music, and Popular Culture in America. The South Atlantic Quarterly 84 (1985) (1): 12-26
9 As 1
10 We’re Getting Closer to the Grave Each Day, Hank Williams, 1946, Sterling Records
11 Country Music Hall of Fame, http://countrymusichalloffame.org/full-list-of-inductees/view/hank-williams Access date: 3rd March 2011
12 Are You Sure Hank Did It This Way? Waylon Jennings, 1975, RCA