Hank Williams’ Apostrophe: A Quest for Authenticity

The title of the song is “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” That much is clear. Icheatint’s right there on the cover of the sheet music, as published by Williams’ own publisher, Acuff-Rose, in 1952. Of that there is no possible doubt whatever.

Thereafter, though, things get murky. It seems obvious that, if you’re singing the song, the first line should be the same as the title: “Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep … ” But should it?

My mother would say absolutely not. She was a writer and English teacher from Michigan, and she scorned “hick talk.” If she had sung the song—which she may well have done, because she was a big Williams fan—it would have begun “Your cheating heart … ”

On the face of it, that would be ridiculous. It would summon up visions of Peter Sellers’ hilarious Shakespearian performance of the lyrics to “A Hard Day’s Night,” with plummy vowels, crisp consonants and carefully flipped Rs. It would, in short, be a crime against authenticity. Hank Williams wasn’t from Michigan and he wasn’t an English teacher, and he didn’t put no stinking G on the end of his “cheatin’.”

Look at it a little more closely, though, and the issues are less clear. For one thing, while his own recording of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” makes clear that he sang it as “cheatin’,” there’s no doubt that he would have sung it that way whether the lyric sheet said “cheatin’” or “cheating.” For evidence, consider his autograph lyrics to “I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep,” viewable here, which are festooned with “ings” with the G carefully rendered; on his recording, though, it’s “cryin’” throughout.

Does that apply to “Your Cheatin’ Heart?”  Yes, it does.  Hand-written lyrics survive and show that, indeed, Williams wrote it as “Your Cheating Heart.”  Most likely the record label decided that the folksier “Cheatin’” was better for the country market.  So arguably singing “cheating” would actually be more authentic than singing “cheatin’,” even though the latter is what Williams himself sang.

Questions of authenticity are always tricky with Williams. Listening to the recently released Mother’s Best radio recordings, it’s remarkable how much thicker Williams’ Alabama accent is when he’s talking than when he’s singing. He tells announcer Cousin Louie Buck that he’ll sing “I Can’t Hep It If I’m Still in Love with You,” but as soon as he starts singing the L is where it belongs in “Help.”

The hidden hand here is that of Fred Rose, Williams’ publisher, producer and mentor (and, if his fellow Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Hank Thompson is to be believed, the uncredited composer of most of Williams’ songs: Thompson, who was a friend of Williams, asserted that Williams was essentially a lyricist whose tunes were anonymously contributed by Rose, a veteran songwriter). Williams recorded for MGM Records, a national label, and Rose was eager for his songs to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Almost certainly he encouraged Williams to “clean up” his accent when singing, trading off authenticity for broader appeal.

Williams isn’t the only one to do this—my mother, for one, “cleaned up” her north-Michigan accent when she went to college and, later, moved to New York—and he didn’t take it to extremes. He didn’t, for example, start articulating the G in “cheating.” Singing it without the G came naturally to Williams, who was born in Chapman, Alabama, in 1923, and he probably didn’t even notice that he was “changing the words” when he sang “crying” as “cryin’” or “cheating” as “cheatin’.” That was the way he talked.

I’m singing a lot of Williams these days, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but I was born 38 years later in New York City. I cut my musical teeth on Episcopal church music and the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, and “cheatin’” isn’t the way I talk. Never has been, unless I’m awfully tired. If I sang “Your cheatin’ heart,” it would mean something subtly different than when Williams sang it. What was authenticity in him would be a pose in me. Is it actually a tribute to an artist beloved for his authenticity (however shaded it may have been in practice) to discard your own authenticity and mimic the way he sang?

Plenty of musicians would say yes, notably the British Invasion rockers who all tried to sound like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters, but I think not. That’s why I sing it “Your cheating heart.” I don’t think the presence or absence of the G matters a whit in what makes the song one of the greatest ever, so I sing it like me, not like Williams.

To the extent that I compromise my own accent in singing country, it’s more often on vowel sounds than on consonants.

For example, A.P. Carter was writing (or, more often, adapting) his songs to be sung by Sara Carter, whose backwoods-Virginia accent elongated some vowels and flattened some others: What he wrote as “There’s a better home awaiting,” she sang as “Thuhr’s a better home awaiting”; he knew she’d sing the syllable longer than it looked on the page, so he structured the vocal line accordingly. I don’t affect Carter’s accent (my ancestors, some also named Carter, left Virginia in the early 1800s, and I’d sound silly trying to sing that way now), but I do stretch the vowel a bit, enough to respect A.P.’s melody. It’s a judgment call, but to me that’s essential to “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” in a way that the G in “cheating” isn’t essential to that song.

[One side note: In one of my other lives, I’ve been the entertainment editor for the New York Times Syndicate since 1995. In this capacity I’ve edited interviews with hundreds of musicians, and I’ve invariably rejected writers’ attempts to transliterate the accents of the people they’re interviewing.

In part this is a practical consideration, because no amount of careful transliteration can really capture, for example, the way B.B. King might have said “my guitar isn’t an instrument, it’s my music.” Mostly, though, it’s because authenticity often is a cloak for subtle condescension, even racism. In decades of reading music journalism, I’ve noticed that writers will often quote a black musician as saying “It’s gotta be real, y’know,” but almost never attempt to reproduce the way that a white musician like, say, Paul McCartney might say it: “Ih’s gaw be rill, y’now?”]

The quest for authenticity is, in any case, a chimera. Hank Williams described himself as a folk singer, but he wasn’t sitting on his porch, picking and waiting for Alan Lomax to come by and record him. He was a professional singer/songwriter with a keen eye on what audiences wanted, what record companies wanted, what the club owners and promoters who hired him wanted. That he read Billboard, tracked his royalties carefully and wasn’t above writing a song to cash in on a current craze—his “The Alabama Waltz” (1949) was a shameless attempt to replicate the success of the Pee Wee King/Redd Stewart smash “The Tennessee Waltz” (1948)—doesn’t make him any less authentic. His songs, “Alabama Waltz” included, are an accurate reflection of who he was, which (unsurprisingly) was more complicated than his public image.

The ultimate authenticity of a song has nothing to do with the singer’s accent, the arrangement or any other superficial element. Its authenticity comes from its connection with the listener. If Williams’ blend of disappointment, resentment and rueful acceptance connects with you, it doesn’t matter if the version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” you’re hearing is Williams’ stripped-down original or James Brown’s funkified version from 1969. Either way, it’s authentic.


5 thoughts on “Hank Williams’ Apostrophe: A Quest for Authenticity

  1. Pingback: Love Is Blind, in 4/4 Time | Tennessee Walt

  2. Pingback: Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s The Other Great American Songbook | Tennessee Walt

  3. Pingback: Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s The Other Great American Songbook | Tennessee Walt

    • Thank you! It’s a cool thing about the internet–with which I have plenty of reasons to quarrel–that something I put up more than six years ago can still find readers. –gw


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