It’s darn near impossible for music from the past to affect me in the same way it affected those for whom it was written. ~ Ron Averill
The French Revolution was kind of a big deal in 1789. Beethoven wrote an opera about it in 1805 (Fidelio), but I cannot relate to the topic or the musical style with the same enthusiasm and sense of wonder as did 1805 concertgoers. Geography, economics, education, exposure to varied musical styles… all these things influence how we respond to music. And although it’s a bit closer to home, I can’t really put myself into the shoes of a dirt-poor sharecropper from the southern U.S. ca. 1950. So my take on Hank Williams comes from a different place than that of a large portion of his original audience.
Even so, I’ve loved the music of Hank Williams for decades and have performed many of his songs in a variety of bands. But it wasn’t until I recently watched Ken Burns’ Country Music that I really understood where Hank was coming from, what he was singing about.
Williams grew up in Alabama during the Great Depression, often moving for his father’s work, eventually losing his father to eight years of hospitalization. Additionally, young Hank was born with a spinal deformity that left him constantly in pain and later contributed to drug and alcohol abuse. Although this could just be me romanticizing, it seems like his existence was filled with sorrow.
Some of Williams’ titles obviously focus on sad topics: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Your Cheatin’ Heart, Cold Cold Heart. But other upbeat tunes also lean towards misery: Move It On Over (infidelity), Why Don’t You Love Me (lost love), Honky Tonk Blues (struggling with life in the city). And while some songs depict having a good time (Honky Tonkin’) or falling head-over-heels in love (Howlin’ at the Moon), much of Williams’ work deals in despair.
But what beautiful despair it is! Weary Blues from Waitin’ is about a man who is hoping his woman will come back to him. We don’t know why she left, but now it’s winter and as he cries the man’s heart is surrounded by the chilled fingers of nothingness. The music is haunting, lonely and austere, the singer’s sweet voice filled with anguish and heartache. Seldom can one hear something as touching as this simple song.
Ramblin’ Man is the heartbreaking study of a man who can’t stay in the same place for very long. “I love you baby, but you gotta understand when the Lord made me he made a ramblin’ man.” You can feel his inner turmoil, wanting to settle down with a wife but unable to ignore the siren-call of a passing train’s whistle.
Fortunately for you all, Everett Public library is right resplendent in its Hank Williams collection. The Very Best of Hank Williams and Pictures From Life’s Other Side: The Man and His Music in Rare Recordings and Photos are available on CD, and a passel of other albums are available to stream through Hoopla.
So, no excuses! Check out Hank Sr. and have a good cry, cry, cry.