January 1, 2021 ... New Year’s Day. Here I am, 73 years old, married for 53 years, thrice a father, six times a grandfather, twice retired, a survivor of two types of cancer and three college degree programs. I have been to two county fairs and a brush arbor revival, what more surprises can life hold for me?
This is the 68th anniversary of the death of Hank Williams. I remember hearing the grownups talking about it at church. Took me a while to connect the name with the “Kaw-Liga” that blasted from the radio in the barn while the old folks milked. The popularity of the posthumously released “Your Cheating Heart” left indelible association of the name and the sound.
Hank’s popularity never really faded, but in the late 60’s, his music gained favor with a new generation. Those of us shocked by hippies, unmoved by the Beatles, and dislocated culturally by being the first of our families to attend college found comfort in late night radio broadcasts from Nashville and Des Moines where “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” fit our moods perfectly. I memorized Hank’s lyrics and the guitar chords along with the periodic table and how to integrate by parts. The music was a link to my childhood.
Most of my college days I endured, but the literature course was food for my soul. I asked the prof if Hank Williams’ songs could be considered literature. She was not familiar with them and asked if I could share some of them, and I provided several booklets of music and lyrics. She studied them for a few days, and rendered judgment: “… interesting examples of Americana, but not literature … lacking in style and broad appeal …,” etc.
I resisted the temptation to major in literature (had to make a living) but reading the classics and contemporary Western literature have been my passion for half a century. “Style…universal appeal” …? Wordsworth’s “To a Daffodil” and Kilmer’s “Trees” make the cut, but “Cold, Cold Heart” and “You Win Again” do not?
Paul Craft wrote a song called, “Hank Williams, you wrote my life.” If you have never heard it, search YouTube. Moe Bandy’s cut is the best. Maybe it is my rural upbringing, traditional value system, and a thorn in the flesh shared with Hiram King Williams (his father was a Freemason, hence the unusual moniker), but those ditties sung in that woeful voice backed by a four-piece band are balm for my soul.
The most influential artist in my intellectual growth has been William Faulkner. I spend many days reading and re-reading his work, and many nights pondering what he wrote. His style is influenced by James Joyce, but it is uniquely his own. His life was longer, but just as tragic as Williams’ in his failure to achieve peace and happiness. Yet, in the insights he attained and by the sublimity in his expression of them, he gained fame that will last as long as men read and think. Hank Williams wrote my life, but William Faulkner wrote the life of modern man.
2020: what a year. Pandemic, impeachment, attempted overthrow of US system of electing presidents, Republican Congressmen, Senators, and governors fearing a man who was a Democrat 20 years ago…Fiction cannot match reality.
Happy New Year, y’all.