The Ballad Of Hank Williams

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.

Ken Burns’ Country Music

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I listen to a wide variety of musical styles and one of my favorites is what I call Old Timey. This general label can include early blues, ragtime, folk, jug band and early country. So I eagerly anticipated Ken Burns’ latest documentary, titled simply Country Music. Little did I realize that my version of reality was about to be blown up like a trout in a mountain lake. 

Volume One of this monumental work looks at the folks who invented what we have come to know as country music, including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Beautiful photographs mix with audio recordings and narrated histories. Although I’m more familiar with this music than many people, I still found myself watching with wonderment, learning stories (including scandals) that I’d not known, feeling as if I were present in the photos, cipherin’ the importance of individual performers.

For example, I did not know that Maybelle Carter, guitarist for the Carter Family, created her own style of guitar picking called, among other things, the thumb brush. Or that Jimmie Rodgers was so weak from tuberculosis during his final recording session that he had to rest on a cot between takes. And that Gene Autry’s singing cowboy films were vitally important in spreading country music to a national audience.

Someone I do know a bit about is Mr. Hank Williams, whose short but fertile career began to unfold in the 1940s. From his first hit in 1948 to his death in 1953, Williams created a litany of country standards that continue to be popular 70 years later. Outstanding songwriting skills and an appealing voice were the perfect combination to catapult Hank to stardom. But it was perhaps his lyrics that drew in listeners. Tales of heartache and ways to combat said heartache spoke to people in a way that popular music seldom did.

Country Music moves on to tell of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs developing a new style called bluegrass, of Elvis Presley and others taking country in a new direction that would eventually become rock and roll, and of Ray Charles’ importance in popularizing country with the release of his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The amount of information in this documentary is phenomenal and we’ve only scratched the surface today. And, there’s also a Volume Two!

Part of the beauty of country music, and American music in general, is the combination of influences. Nobody woke up on a Tuesday and said, “Ah, I think I’ll invent country music!” American folk music, which is derived from European folk music, along with African influences, blues, jazz and swing all had an impact on the growth of country. For example, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys modeled themselves after swing bands, employing horn sections, drums, instrumental solos and a swing feel. And in the early 1950s honky tonk, boogie woogie and country, as well as other genres, coalesced into rockabilly and then rock and roll. It’s all intertwined.

So sit back and prepare to be stunned. Volume One is about eight hours of viewing time, so make sure you have a comfy chair and an adequate supply of beverages. And do not sit too close to the screen as this is bad for your eyes. And please, as always, allow time for bathroom breaks.