Tuesday, November 11, 2008

He Walked Alone

Hank Williams, The Unreleased Recordings. The camera pans the single street of a desolate north Texas town. The ripping wind of a blue norther flings clouds of dust and debris in random directions. A truck motor coughs and backfires. In the truck, a teenager stomps on the clutch, shoves in the starter, and rubs his frozen hands. The eternal wind rips and whines. The boy pauses to turn up the radio so that he can hear Hank Williams singing "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do." He works the starter again, the protesting engine finally starts, and the truck pulls away from the curb. So begins Peter Bogdanovich's great film The Last Picture Show.

Besides being terrific cinema, this scene encapsulates Hank Williams’ stark vision of loneliness and spiritual isolation. Since seeing that scene, I like to listen to Hank in my car, preferably when it’s cold out. That's the ideal way to appreciate that mournful, inimitable voice pondering such unknowables as "Why can't I free your doubtful mind/And melt your cold cold heart"?

1951 was Williams’ breakthrough year as a recording artist, but it was also a miserable time personally. Wracked by excruciating back pain, he saw his marriage fall apart, spurred on by his binge drinking. He barely made it through 1952, dying a lonely, drug-addled death on New Year’s Day 1953 in the back seat of a car. He was 29 and our first great post-War songwriter, leaving behind him a canon ranking with any in the American songbook.

Hank Williams knew a terrible secret, and he revealed it in his songs and performances. He knew that humans have a core of fear where love is a fleeting and treacherous thing, where redemption lies in death, and where loneliness and isolation is the human fate. In Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, he fearlessly explores this core, leading us on the harrowing journey that ultimately claimed his life.

The 3-CD set comprises a series of live studio recordings Williams made for broadcast on Sunday mornings. The liner notes don’t say so, but surely this explains why over a third of the songs are gospel numbers. In Williams’ hands, collectively these become a Biblical epic of the wanderings of a lost soul. To Hank Williams, the search for spirituality is not a collective experience found in a megachurch: It is a lonely road traveled by prodigals who quest for redemption that probably isn’t there but that at least offers the hope of self-knowledge before the release of death.

One can divine William’s preoccupations by the names of the songs he chose: “Low and Lonely,” “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “The Prodigal Son,” “I’ve Got My One Way Ticket to the Sky,” “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave,” “Why Should We Try Any More,” “May You Never Be Alone,” Lonely Tombs,” and “The Pale Horse and His Rider.” Collectively, they form a cinematic impact evoked perfectly by the opening scene of The Last Picture Show.

He turns the campfire song “Cool Water” into a Conradian odyssey, a tale of a parched soul pleading for deliverance only to find that redemption is a mirage. Through this performance, Williams reveals his ultimate fear: That the journey is not the reward, but just another part of the horror. Even so, moving on beats standing still, which leads to madness. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, a fiddle, and the occasional whisper of a pedal steel guitar, Hank’s deliberate phrasing summons a paradoxical sense of inevitability. It’s a bravura performance, arguably Williams’ finest vocal, and by itself worth the price of admission.

Small pleasures abound: A spirited romp through “Cherokee Boogie,” the pellucid steel guitar solo in “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” the occasional bit of faux jive that passes for between-song banter, the first-ever appearance of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still I’m Still In Love With You),” a Korean War verse added to “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave.” And since the early ‘50’s was a time when country and bluegrass cross-pollinated, the four-part harmony of the high lonesome graces many of the performances, an adornment that perfectly augments Williams vocal style.

Some of the beloved favorites are here, but mostly Williams delves into a catalogue of rural Americana that he knew and loved and felt from the deepest parts of his soul. Hank Williams understood loneliness as an essential part – maybe the essential part –  of the human condition, the surest path to the true self. He feared loneliness but couldn’t resist its embrace; in his exploration of loneliness, he ironically touched the most fearful part of us all. Perhaps the knowledge that someone else understood that part of us and could expressed it as art eases our burden and lightens our step. Certainly, such empathy allowed one soul the redemption it never knew in life...

R. I. P., Preacher Roe, Boy of Summer...


Sylvia K said...

You've written a beautiful and moving tribute to Hank Williams. We all have our own journey through life, one can't help but wonder sometimes why for some the journey is a relatively smooth sail and for others a long, rocky, treacherous road. Does that have something to do with old souls and new? I have no idea.

K. said...

The older I get and the more I experience, the more I accept that much of life is genes, timing, and luck. And that how happy you are depends on how you respond to the things you can't control.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Hank Williams knew a terrible secret, and he revealed it in his songs and performances. He knew that humans have a core of fear where love is a fleeting and treacherous thing, where redemption lies in death, and where loneliness and isolation is the human fate.

Perfectly described.

And your response to Sylvia mirrors almost exactly a comment I left at another blogger's site this morning, with a few different words- but same meaning. I laughed at the serendipitous nature of bloggers.

You probably are already familiar with another Texas artist who, to me, was almost Hank reincarnate:

Townes Van Zandt.

I adore Townes music, even more than Hank's (probably a generational thing - shhhh.)

K. said...

Townes wrote some great songs. Robert Plant and Allison Krause performed a chilling version of "Nothing" when we saw them last month. And how about Willie and Merle's "Pancho and Lefty"? Greatness!

Cowtown Pattie said...

He not only wrote great songs, but his voice...to me... is the perfect folk balladeer's.

Of course, his life story was sad, as was Hank's. The old question of whether artists can be great ONLY if life is filled with tragedy?

I will admit, I don't know if Townes would be so romantic without his self-destructive habits.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

beautiful post.

and thanks, I now know what to get f for the holidays....or maybe e....we are all big hank fans here.

wonderful review of this cd set and the bits about hank.

if I knew hank died at 29 I forgot it.

thanks for it all.

K. said...

T. was amazed to find out that Hank died so young. He's such a towering figure that you assume that he lived at least as long as Elvis!

IMHO, Williams' singing style influenced the young Bob Dylan as much as Woody Guthrie's did. I know Dylan is a huge Williams fan and has made plenty of allusions to him over the years. Then there's Leonard Cohen's great lyric:

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

When Leonard Cohen admits that you're hundred floors higher than he is, you know you wrote some pretty decent lyrics!