Elmont Memorial Library, May 5, 2023
“Hey, Good-Looking” (Hank Williams, 1951).
Yes, the official name is “Hey, Good Lookin’.” To understand why I don’t call it that, read my 2016 blog post, “Hank Williams’ Apostrophe: A Quest for Authenticity.” It’s not about this song specifically, but it might just as well be.
Williams’ penchant for borrowing tunes and, often, some of the lyrics from other people’s songs got him into at least one plagiarism suit, over “Cold, Cold Heart” (1951). There were others who might have sued, though, and among them was the great Broadway songwriter Cole Porter, whose 1942 song “Hey, Good-Looking” has way too much in common with Williams’ song to be a coincidence.
Perhaps Porter never heard Williams’ song—Music Row and Broadway were much further apart in 1951 than they are today. Or maybe he simply felt that Williams’ song was so much of an improvement on his that his reputation would suffer if he called attention to the similarities.
Anyway, here’s Williams singing his song, and here are Ethel Merman and Bill Johnson singing Porter’s song. See what you think.
“Calling You” (Hank Williams, 1946).
Williams would get better at propulsive, exciting, gospel-infused songs, but he was already pretty good by the time he wrote “Calling You.” On this song, as on the classic “I Saw the Light” (1947), he uses a simple melody and a repetitive chorus to produce a church-friendly song. The call-and-response chorus of “Calling You” is particularly effective in a church-choir context, as you can hear in Williams’ original recording of the song, with the band members (guitarist Guy Willis, accordionist Vic Wallis, fiddler Skeeter Willis and bassist Charles “Indian” Wright) providing backup vocals.
“Move It On Over” (Hank Williams, 1947).
People ask me, how do you remember the words to all those songs? The answer is, I practice them a whole lot—two or three hours a day, six days a week, and often more. But it helps to break them down and see how they’re put together. Often this can reveal useful mnemonics—aids to memory.
“Move It On Over” has three problem points in each verse: One is the order of verses themselves, and two are in the chorus: the “X it on over, Y it on over” couplet and the concluding “Move over, X dog, ‘cause the Y dog’s moving in.” There are seven verses to the song, so that’s 28 problem points. (The “Y dog” isn’t a problem point, because it almost always follows from the “X dog line”—“skinny dog/fat dog,” “short dog/tall dog” and so forth; if you remember the “X dog” line, the “Y dog” line is easy.)
The order of the verses is often challenging in Williams’ list songs, but not in this case, because they make logical sense. Verse 1 establishes that he’s in a doghouse, singing to the dog; Verse 2 explains that he’s there because he’s been locked out of his house; Verse 3 explains why he’s turned to the doghouse; Verse 4 explains why his wife locked him out; Verse 5 admits that she’d warned him as much; Verse 6 predicts that she’ll regret it and apologize; and Verse 7 returns to his immediate dealings with the dog who is the audience for the song.
As to the “X it on over, Y it on over” couplets, in the last three verses all begin with S, and they’re almost entirely in alphabetical order: “scratch it on over/shake it on over”; “slide it on over/sneak it on over”; “shove it on over, sweep it on over.” Remember the letter “S” and that “shove” is out of order, and you’re almost halfway home. (This probably isn’t accidental—I myself use the device of alphabetical order to help make a list easy to remember. Look through my narrations for this show, and you’ll see a bunch of alphabetized lists.)
The first verse is easy, because “move it on over” is repeated. The next three verses are less obviously memorizable: “get it on over/scoot it on over”; “ease it on over/drag it on over” and “pack it on over, tote it on over.” I use “Gilbert & Sullivan”—“G and S”—for the second verse, “ED Sullivan” for the third and “P.T. Barnum” for the fourth. (Arthur Sullivan leads to Ed Sullivan because they were both named Sullivan; Ed Sullivan leads to P.T. Barnum because they were both people who made it big in show business despite lacking any marketable talent.)
As to the “X dog/Y dog,” here Williams uses a common songwriter’s device, which is that in a list song you put the funniest one last, the second-funniest one first and then the others in descending order, with the third-best one second-to-last and so on. “Cold dog/hot dog” is unexpected and clever, so it’s last. “Little dog/big dog” captures the attitude of the song, so it’s first. “Good dog/bad dog” plays on a pet owner’s frequent phrase, so that’s second-to-last. Williams seems to have thought “short dog/tall dog” was the fourth-best, “nice dog/mad dog” the fifth-best, “old dog/new dog” the sixth-best and “skinny dog/fat dog” the weakest. I don’t agree (I like “old dog/new dog” and “nice dog/mad dog”), but that doesn’t matter. It’s a way to look at the thing and see it as a structure, not just a barrage of random words.
Incidentally, you’ll notice from Williams’ original recording that, when the band echoes him on the “X dog/Y dog” lines in each verse, they always sing “Move it on over”—they don’t change the words twice in each verse. Most likely Williams would have liked to have them do so, but he (or producer Fred Rose) despaired of getting four instrumentalists to handle so many different lyrics.
(The band was the Cumberland Valley Boys, borrowed from Red Foley for the recording session: fiddler Tommy Jackson, guitarist Zeke Turner, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd and bassist Louis Innis. They were a top band, much better than Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, but their sound was more pop than Williams liked; once he was established and had a say in who backed him on sessions, he went with a more straight-ahead country sound.)
“Lovesick Blues” (Hank Williams, 1949).
How does a Tin Pan Alley flop turn into a country classic? The answer isn’t “It gets sung by Hank Williams.” It’s more complicated than that, and the main guy in the story is Rex Griffin, a little-known country star who died in 1959.
Don’t trust Wikipedia, which says that, back when it was called “I’ve Got the Love-Sick Blues,” the song “first appeared in the 1922 musical Oh, Ernest.” That show, an early adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1899), dates from 1927, five years after Elsie Clark made the first recording of the song (lyrics by Irving Mills, music by Cliff Friend). That record was made on March 22, 1922; the song was heard in a Manhattan revue at the Boardwalk Club in June of that year, and was recorded again by Jack Shea the next month. Anna Chandler may conceivably have sung the song at the Boardwalk Club—she’s pictured on the cover of the sheet music, also published in 1922—but it’s unclear. There’s also no record of her having been involved in Oh, Ernest that I can find.
No matter—Clark’s version doesn’t seem to be available online, but a folk version of the same song was soon available in Emmet Miller’s 1925 version, probably already significantly different from Clark’s New York version. (Warning: Miller was a blackface comedian, and the song is preceded by some spoken comedy that’s offensive to modern ears.) It’s possible that it was this version which inspired Griffin’s take, 14 years later, especially for its use of the yodel.
(Fun fact: Miller’s Okeh recording was produced by Ralph Peer, who two years later—working by then for the Victor Talking Machine Company—would host the Bristol Sessions and launch commercial country music as we know it today.)
Rex Griffin’s 1939 version sounds much more like Williams’ 1949 version, in that it takes the chorus from the Mills/Friend version and makes it the verse, and then takes the original verse and makes it the chorus. His version lacks the kinetic energy of Williams’ version, and it’s no wonder that Griffin’s lackadaisical take didn’t scale the charts the way Williams’ would a decade later.
“Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?” (Hank Williams, 1950).
Williams seems to have really liked the line “My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue,” because, after using it to end the first verse, he reuses it to end the last verse.
This is particularly marked because it wrecks the structure. In the first quatrain, the rhyme scheme is AAAA (“do”/”shoe”/”blue”/”do”), and that’s also the case with the second (“do”/”coo”/”through”/”do”). The third changes the rhyme scheme to AABB (“be”/”me”/”clue”/”do”), but even then the structure dictates that the first three lines of each quatrain are fresh, and the fourth one is “Why don’t you love me like you used to do?” When “My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue” turns up again in the third line of the final quatrain, it’s a remarkable choice—and the best explanation is that Williams just thinks it’s too funny to use only once (I agree).
This was already an interesting song structurally, because it takes an unusual approach to its two verses and two choruses. (Each verse is two quatrains, the chorus is the same couplet each verse: “Ain’t had no loving, like a-hugging and a-kissing, in a long, long while—/we don’t get nearer or closer or further than a country mile.”) Normally each verse would be two quatrains and then the chorus, but Williams nests the chorus within the verse, between the two quatrains, which I’ve literally never seen before.
It’s also possible to view the song as having four-line verses, in which case it goes verse-chorus-verse, verse-chorus-verse. Still highly unusual.
Williams cultivated a reputation as an uncalculating “natural,” but in reality he was a canny songwriter who was a master of his craft and knew how to take even familiar material and repackage it to be fresh and appealing. This song is ample proof of that.
Here’s Williams’ version, and here’s an interesting cover by the great Connie Smith. Love that harmonica!
“Cold, Cold Heart” (Hank Williams/Ted West, 1951).
The lyrics to “Cold, Cold Heart” are thought by some to have been written by Paul Gilley. I find this argument less than persuasive. There’s some evidence that Gilley had written a song called “Cold, Cold Heart,” but it may have been a different song—it’s not a particularly original title. See my blog post on this for more.
Regardless, in this song Williams appears to blame his problems with his wife, Audrey, on her first husband, James Erskine Guy, or perhaps one of the other men in her life. This is the only time I know of in which he took that tack, and it didn’t keep him from marrying, as his second wife, another woman who’d been married before.
“Cold, Cold Heart” is a classic, and has been recorded numerous times. Here are seven versions, starting with …
* T. Texas Tyler’s “You’ll Still Be in My Heart.” I’ve heard this online, but I can’t find it now. Here’s a jaunty cover by Ernest Tubb, though; I’m always up for an E.T. song, but this doesn’t give a good feel for the Tyler version, which was more of a ballad. That said, Williams’ lyrics are much better than Buddy Starcher’s cliched words for the Tyler song, in part because he turns Starcher’s AABCCBDDEFFE into a simpler, cleaner ABCBDEFE (“There was a time/when you were mine,” for example, becomes a nonrhyming “I try so hard my dear to show”).
* Clyde Grubb’s original version is fast and funky, and makes a good case for the otherwise-unknown Grubb and his energetic Tennessee Valley Boys. Still only my third-favorite version, though.
* Williams’ 1951 classic, which speaks for itself. Note, though, that Williams’ version is surprisingly brisk for a song that’s so emotionally freighted. Williams was a master of the moderate tempo—his beat is always steady and neither fast nor slow. He’s able to deliver dramatic intensity (as in this case) without milking the song, and to deliver humor without rushing. He’s known as a songwriter, but his skills as a singer are underappreciated.
* Tony Bennett’s pop version, with Percy Faith leading the band. This was recorded only a few months after Williams’ original. How bizarre is it that Bennett is still alive, and still working, 70 years later? That said, I detest this version, which is full of melodramatic flourish and lacks any real emotion.
* Aretha Franklin’s 1964 version is in the Ray Charles school of country, which is to say not country at all. All the same, her voice is not to be denied. She also changes the order of the verses, for reasons which I can’t explain.
* In the current century, Norah Jones’ 2002 version makes a good case for the song as a cabaret classic. I find this too fast for my taste, but respond to its simplicity and intimacy. Cabaret is supposed to be like this, but too often isn’t.
* Hey, pictures! There are only two-and-a-half surviving songs’ worth of Hank Williams live on television, and here’s one of them. This is from 1952—and, interestingly, he takes the song much more slowly than on the record.
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” (Hank Williams, 1950).
Hank Williams and Anita Carter duetted with this song on Kate Smith’s television program on April 23, 1952; you can see the footage right here. It’s one of only four surviving video samples of Williams performing live.
Apparently Williams asked for Carter (youngest of the three Carter Sisters) to be included in the number; reportedly he was energetically pursuing Carter, who had turned 19 only a few weeks before. That makes this seem a little skeevy, but there’s no denying the appeal of the performance. Carter had one of the most beautiful voices country has ever heard.
Here’s Williams’ original version, and a great cover by Linda Ronstadt from 1974; the stunning harmonies are by the great Emmylou Harris. Speaking of beautiful voices, when she felt like it, Ronstadt was one of the greatest country singers ever.
“Baby, We’re Really in Love” (Hank Williams, 1951).
When people think of Hank Williams, they think of dark, depressive laments like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow.” Nobody could sustain a career on entirely downbeat material, though, and Williams cranked out a steady stream of upbeat, danceable songs that expressed an entirely different point of view.
This one, a No. 4 country hit, is notable for its simplicity. Unlike “Move It On Over,” “I Won’t Be Home No More” and “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?,” its upbeat, exuberant tune is wedded to … an upbeat, exuberant lyric. It pops out of a typical Hank Williams collection because it’s cheerful across the board. After a string of darkly brilliant songs, it’s a delight to get to a legitimately happy song that tells its story with no irony at all.
Incidentally, you’ll note that this song juxtaposes the lines “If you’re thinking ‘bout me like I’m thinking ‘bout you” (v. 1) and “If you’re dreaming ‘bout me like I’m dreaming ‘bout you” (v. 2). He uses this same juxtaposition in the subtly depressing “Nobody’s Lonesome for Me”: “Everybody’s thinking about somebody else” (v. 1) and “Everybody’s dreaming about somebody else” (v. 2).
My lovely wife points out the surprising similarities between this song and the Tin Pan Alley classic “Under the Bamboo Tree” (1901), written by Bob Cole, J. Rosamund Johnson and James Weldon Johnson. Here’s a bizarro performance by Arthur Collins from 1902. Williams may well have known this song, as it’s performed by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Here’s Williams singing the song in 1951, and Don Gibson—one of the greatest singer/songwriters to follow in Williams’ footsteps—singing it in 1962, a la Elvis.
“You Win Again” (Hank Williams, 1952).
The impact of Fred Rose’s suggestion to change the title from “I Lose Again” to “You Win Again” is immeasurable. “I Lose Again” feels like whining, self-pity, wallowing. “You Win Again” has a rueful tone, as if the narrator is looking at his own situation from the outside, seeing his own helplessness and grimacing.
The final “I love you still” comes as a shock, one of the greatest kickers in country history, but of course this isn’t what popular songs usually mean by “love.” What Williams is talking about is not idealized romanticism, but fatal attraction. His narrator doesn’t remotely idolize the woman to whom he’s singing—he sees her as a succubus, a monster without heart or shame. True love is in this song, but it flows only from the men to her. There’s no reciprocity here, only a doomed, obsessive fascination with no way out.
Songs this dark don’t usually become hits, but this one did. Country music isn’t like most other kinds of music—there’s room for a lot of darkness there.
“I Won’t Be Home No More” (Hank Williams, 1949).
Hank Williams and Audrey Williams were officially divorced on July 10, 1952; this song was recorded on July 11. I don’t think there’s much chance that the dates are coincidental.
You’d think that Williams would be in a turn-the-page mode—he was engaged to a beautiful young woman and was also expecting a child (by another woman), to which he seems to have been looking forward. However, in both this song and “You Win Again,” recorded at the same session, he’s thinking about Audrey. She later insisted that Williams never really stopped loving her and that, if he’d lived, they would have gotten back together; it’s hard to deny that she might have been right.
The song is a simple one, a drumbeat insistence that he won’t be home no more, with the verses simply a string of metaphors for being too late—but they’re clever and give this biting, spiteful song a whimsical quality that keeps it from seeming mean. My particular favorite is “You’re just in time to turn around/and drive your buggy back to town”—I don’t know why.
Here’s Williams’ recording, and a strutting cover from 1985 by the great Waylon Jennings.
“Your Cheating Heart” (Hank Williams, 1952).
I guess Audrey Williams’ bee in her bonnet about this particular song must have stemmed from its being such a big hit, because her husband painted far worse pictures of her in other songs (“You Win Again,” anyone?) that, so far as we know, she let go.
This is a pruned-down version of the arrangement I’ve been doing since 2016. I’ve been wanting to work up a new arrangement for this song, one that’s more country, for some time, and this seemed like the right moment. My original one felt kind of cabaret to me, and that’s not what I’m going for. I have enough troubles convincing people that what I’m doing is country.
And, yes, the rumors are true, I did write an entire blog essay about the apostrophe (or lack of same) in the title of this song. It’s called “Hank Williams’ Apostrophe: The Quest for Authenticity,” and you can find it right here.
“Take These Chains from My Heart” (Fred Rose/Hy Heath, 1952).
This was Williams’ last No. 1 record, released four months after his death. The guitar solo is by the great Chet Atkins.
Rose takes an unusual tack with this song, which is in an AABBA rhyme scheme. Typically an AABBA sets up the situation in the first couplet of each verse, offers an intensification in the second couplet and then delivers the emotional “punch line” on the final line, drawing added resonance from its repeating the rhyme of the first couplet, before feeding into a repeated chorus. (Almost all ballads save their emotional punch for the last line of each verse, understandably.)
This time, however, Rose uses the last line as a settling point, by repeating the first line of the song as the last line for each verse—and foregoing a true chorus, so that line serves as a one-line chorus. It’s not a surprise, it doesn’t pack a punch, but instead winds down the intensity of a verse that has actually hit its emotional peak with the second couplet; only the final verse’s second couplet feeds forward into the final line.
All my faith in you is gone,
but the heartaches linger on.
If you love somebody new,
let me find a new love too.
Then, if you no longer care
for the love that’s beating there,
take these chains from my heart
and set me free.
Williams was not blessed with a beautiful voice, but he was a canny singer who understood song construction and could see what Rose and Heath were doing. If you listen to Williams’ recording, you’ll notice that he punctuates the second couplet of each verse with a half-sob in his voice, giving them the emotional reading that they call for, before easing up his intensity for the final line … except in the third verse, when he powers through the sob to cap the intensity of the song with the final line.
It’s a masterful performance of an excellent song, all the more impressive in that it was done on a date (September 23, 1952) when Williams’ health was in decline, he was drinking too much, his career was in shambles and his second marriage was already on the rocks, even before the ceremony At this point Williams could easily have been slogging through his session in search of a quick payday; instead he gave the song his full attention, and the result is another classic.
He couldn’t know that this would be his final recording session, but his career ended on a high note with “Take These Chains from My Heart” and “Your Cheating Heart” (as well as the overrated “Kaw-Liga”), all recorded the same day.
My second-favorite version of this song may be Merle Haggard’s from 2001. Haggard is past his prime vocally, but there’s a charming lilt to this honky-tonk version that gets me every time.
“Fly Trouble” (Fred Rose, Bunny Briggs and Honey Wilds, 1947).
Briggs and Wilds performed as “Jamup and Honey,” partners in a blackface-comedy act which was a regular feature of the Grand Ole Opry from 1938 to 1953. I’ve listened to a bit of them on the internet, and they seem to have been a fairly straightforward Amos & Andy knockoff, no more and no less offensive, but much less funny.
The song is credited to Rose, Briggs and Wilds, but I’d imagine that it was largely Rose’s work, with the comedians improvising enough of the spoken patter to get a songwriting credit. Neither Briggs nor Wilds has any other known songwriting credits.
Here’s Williams doing the song, with admirable commitment to something which he surely knew wasn’t his kind of thing. He may have found it funny, though, and in any event he gives it a good rendition. As far as I know, the only other recording is a not-especially-inspired one by Hank Williams Jr. from his misguided 1969 album, Luke the Drifter Jr.
Incidentally, Jamup and Honey, who were on the Opry for 15 years, don’t turn up in the show’s various celebrations of its storied history (no wonder), but at the time they were major stars. See the show-promo newspaper story from the late 1940s, at right, which lists them as the headliners, supported by future Country Music Hall of Famers Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl. The Opry’s desire to whitewash its past is understandable, but these guys were big in their day.
“I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow” (Hank Williams/Jimmie Davis, 1949).
In some circles Jimmie Davis (1899-2000) is best known for things that have nothing to do with his talents as a musician: for living to be 101 years old, for being a “three-century man,” for serving as governor of Louisiana from 1944 to 1948 and again from 1960 to 1964, and for being the “copyright holder” for the classic “You Are My Sunshine” (1940), which everybody knows he didn’t write. (Most credit Paul Rice, though there’s support for other candidates as well.)
However, Davis’ 1951 performance of this song on Sun Records shows him to have been a fine singer even when well past his prime. It doesn’t have the virtuoso quality of Williams’ own 1951 performance, but it has an appealing Cajun quality; even more so is Davis’ 1964 performance, which show his age (65), but fits the material well. Davis may never have become a really major artist, but he’s an agreeable presence on records.
He’s also an interesting songwriter. This song has some classic Hank Williams qualities, but it’s doubtful that Williams would have ever written it himself. Prison songs and train songs weren’t really his thing (this song is an obvious antecedent to “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955), by Johnny Cash). Williams’ recording is bluesier than almost any of his other songs, and it makes the song pop out of his greatest-hits collections. Davis’ bent for Cajun music and blues is clearly felt, and the song is the better for it.
For collectors of weird versions of country songs, here’s Bobby Darin giving this one the “Mack the Knife” treatment.
“I Saw the Light” (Hank Williams/Albert E. Brumley, 1947).
Williams’ appropriation of Brumley’s tune and the general sense (and some specific quotes) of his lyrics are beyond question. Still, this is an exuberant song which improves on Brumley’s song by being simpler and more direct, an exultant celebration of personal salvation that works even for non-believers.
Williams sticks to Brumley’s challenging AABB-BBBB rhyme scheme, with the A rhymes different for each verse but the B always the same “ight” rhyme (in Brumley it’s an “ee” rhyme). This is possible, of course, because the English language gives us so many rhymes for this sound—“night,” “light,” “sight,” “right”—but mainly because Williams reuses them: His three verses feature 18 “ight” rhymes (not counting an internal rhyme in the first line of the chorus), but nine of them are “light,” four are “night,” four are “sight” and one is “right.” Such rhymes as “fight,” “slight,” “fright” and “might” go unused.
(Note: Brumley doesn’t actually stick to this rhyme scheme past the first verse—the second and third verses are AABB-CCCC, with only the C rhymes on “ee.” So you could argue that Williams out-Brumleys Brumley himself.)
Here are four versions of this tune, all great recordings: The first is the Chuck Wagon Gang doing “He Set Me Free”; then we have Hank Williams in what is his first truly great recording, making “I Saw the Light” an instant classic; and, a television performance in which Roy Acuff and Hank Williams trade off verses with the Grand Ole Opry cast as their chorus. (Yes, that’s June Carter hamming it up between Acuff and Williams.)
For my money, though, the best version of this is Roy Acuff’s 1947 version, which features some nifty harmony and, above all, a propulsive harmonica that can’t be denied. Better than the Williams version? Yes, but only narrowly. And I think Williams himself might have agreed.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (Hank Williams, 1949).
There’s been some suggestion that the lyrics to this song were actually written by Paul Gilley, an obscure songwriter from Kentucky, and sold to Williams. It’s not entirely out of the question—lots of songs bear the names of people other than the ones who wrote them, and Williams was far from the least offender—but I don’t find the evidence persuasive. You can explore this question further via my blog post on the subject, right here.
In any case, the secret of singing this song is the confidence to sing it slowly. Singers tend to take slow songs faster than they should, for fear of being boring. This song derives its power from its deceptive serenity, and as long as you can keep a steady pulse, to sing it slowly is to sing it well.
“Everything’s OK” (Luke the Drifter, 1950).
Luke’s performance has a warm humor to it that’s unusual for Williams, but very enjoyable; to me, this is the best of the Luke the Drifter recordings. Check it out for yourself.
Alternatives? Here’s a surprisingly faithful (except for the last line) rendition by Bobby Darin (of all people), in 1963. Red Sorvine’s 1986 version is a back-to-basics version enlivened by a bouncy fiddle. All three are nice, but I’ll stick with Luke.
“Rambling Man” (Hank Williams, 1952).
This is the most Hank Williams of the records of Luke the Drifter, a nom de plume under which Williams released 14 songs between 1950 and 1952. Most of these songs differed from the ones released under his own name in that they were moralistic and, usually, at least part recitation, rather than fully sung.
Williams made no secret of the fact that he was Luke—the pseudonym was to protect jukebox operators and radio DJs from spinning “the new Hank Williams record” and getting not a commercial country song but rather an earnest, melodramatic sermon.
A handful of these have enjoyed lives of their own as Hank Williams songs, pure and simple, notably “Men with Broken Hearts” and “Rambling Man.” On the whole, though, they were old-fashioned even then, and haven’t become less dated since.
“Rambling Man” is unusual among Luke the Drifter songs for being entirely sung and for being a first-person song about a character, rather than a third-person lecture from Williams the singer. It’s not a characteristic Williams song either—it’s in a minor key (A minor), which is highly unusual, and utilizes only two chords, and it’s neither funny nor passionate. Instead, it has a chilly distance to it which is immediately involving. Presumably Williams positioned it as a Luke song because he knew it wasn’t like his regular songs, but it’s not like Luke’s songs either. It’s its own thing.
It’s also his most Jimmie Rodgers-influenced song, with its bluesy tone and its half-yodel. On the country spectrum, Williams is normally hard on the Carter Family side, with his penchant for religious material and melodrama, but this is one that would have gone over well with Rodgers and his fans.
Here’s Williams’ version and, for kicks, an atmospheric-but-bizarro live performance by Tom Waits.
“Mind Your Own Business” (Hank Williams, 1949).
This is one of the great early Hank Williams songs (sadly, there aren’t any late Hank Williams songs), managing to combine whininess and exuberance in a characteristic way.
Williams was more of a lyricist than a composer—some of his greatest songs, including “I Saw the Light” (1948) and “Cold, Cold Heart” (1951), were written to existing tunes. In this case the tune he cribbed was his own—the melody of “Mind Your Own Business” is quite a bit like that of “Move It On Over” (1947).
Here’s “Move It On Over,” and here’s “Mind Your Own Business.” The similarity is clear, but I think the later song has more oomph. “Move It On Over” was the bigger hit, though.
“I’m So Tired of It All” (Hank Williams, 1947).
Williams’ only recording of this is a demo made five years before his death; presumably he submitted it to Fred Rose for consideration—if he’d thought the song wasn’t worth recording, he would never have made a demo—and Rose didn’t think it had commercial possibilities.
If so, it’s understandable. The song is skillfully written, with the simple directness that Williams could do better than just about anyone. But it’s bleak and unrelenting, without the tinges of humor that Williams brought to “Nobody’s Lonesome for Me” or the poeticism that infuses “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Its closest kin may be “Why Should We Try Anymore” (1950), a sales disappointment.
Williams often tapped his vein of self-pity, but this isn’t really a song of self-pity, it’s a song of despair, and despair is a hard sell in the pop business, country or otherwise. Even the evocation of heaven in the final verse is tentative, without the exuberance of “I Saw the Light.” Maybe there’s something better in the next world, maybe not—but, either way, he’s just so tired of it all.
Here’s Williams on the demo, and here’s a terrific, keening 1997 version by an aging Merle Haggard that makes a good case for the song. But it is, you know, depressing.
“There’s No Room in My Heart for the Blues” (Fred Rose and Zeb Turner, 1956).
This posthumous release by Williams was drawn from a radio transcript, not a studio session, but it features clear production and a committed performance from Williams. He’s probably not the guitarist, but we don’t know who was. In any case, it’s got a wistful, forgiving quality that is unusual for Williams—possibly why it didn’t get released sooner. For variety, here’s a swinging performance by Ernest Tubb from 1966, for me his prime period. Dig that bouncy piano, by Hargus “Pig” Robbins. (Wish I could do that! Maybe someday … ) I have to prefer the Williams, but the Tubb version has real charm. Want to see what it looked like? Here’s a television performance by E.T., who happens to be my all-time-favorite country singer.
“I’ll Fly Away” (Albert E. Brumley, 1929).
This classic gospel song is probably the most popular and enduring of Brumley’s awesome output, and has been recorded by pretty much everybody. Williams sang it several times in radio shows, including this delightful 1951 version, but never recorded it commercially.
This may be because Fred Rose thought there was a glut of “I’ll Fly Away” records on the market, but I’d imagine that they were scared off by the prospect of competing with one recording in particular: The Chuck Wagon Gang’s 1948 rendition, which sold more than 1 million copies on Columbia. The Chucks are among my favorite musical acts of all time, and this is one of their greatest recordings. Even Hank Williams would have been hard-pressed to come up with something better.
“The Old Log Train” (Hank Williams, 1952).
It’s true, this song affectingly describes Williams’ loss of his father, who wasn’t dead at the time. I think, however, that in a broader sense the story is true.
Williams lost his father very young, even though his father didn’t die. Lon Williams was hospitalized for eight years with a brain aneurysm when Williams was 7, and never lived with the family again. Even before then, he was often away from home for work, and the family moved frequently to accommodate his duties as, yes, a log-train operator. Williams saw his father very occasionally after his hospitalization, but the two never again had a real relationship. His loving but controlling mother was the only parent he ever knew.
I believe that this song is an expression of lost innocence, a recollection of the last time in which Williams lived in a stable, conventional family. The song is an evocation of a classic American life, with a respectable, hard-working father and a mother who loves her husband and has a hot dinner waiting for him when he comes home from work.
Williams would never experience that again, at his mother’s boarding house (some say it was a bordello) or at home with Audrey Williams, a thoroughly non-domestic woman. As his health deteriorated and his second marriage hit the rocks, the 29-year-old Williams saw those long-ago days as a golden age and, as he says in the last verse, a precursor of heaven.
Nobody has ever told me that the first sound Williams remembered hearing as a child was the log train’s whistle, but, if it was, that wouldn’t surprise me.
It’s a wildly uncharacteristic song for Williams—the opening line, “If you will listen, a song I will sing,” reveals a tentativeness completely foreign to his usual persona and, I suspect, reflects his knowledge of how outside his normal line this deeply personal song is. It’s not about romantic love in any way, and has no drama—he calls it “this story,” but it’s not a story, just a memory. It’s entirely possible that, had he lived another five or 10 years, this song would have remained an outlier in his repertoire; but it might also have heralded a new, more introspective Williams that anticipated where country music would go a decade or more later.
Almost certainly Loretta Lynn hadn’t ever heard this song before writing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (it wasn’t found and copyrighted until 1982, a decade after Lynn’s song was recorded), but the structure of the songs is very similar—both are memoirs in which the future singer is an observer, not a participant, and both songs find virtue in hard work and conventional gender roles. The implicit comparison to the show-business lives of the singer/songwriter favors the parent, not the child—except in that the songwriter can use his/her art to give the parent a legacy in art.
Here is Williams’ demo for his song. And, for comparison purposes, two songs highly reminiscent of it in style and content: Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1971) and Peter Allen’s “Tenterfield Saddler” (1972). No, Allen isn’t remotely country; I’ve been told that he acknowledged Lynn’s song as the inspiration for his, though, so why not? For that matter, here’s a Tennessee Walt song on much the same theme, from a live performance a couple years ago. I’m not conscious of Lynn having inspired mine, but the subconscious is a powerful thing.
“Jambalaya” (Hank Williams/Moon Mullican, 1952).
Louisiana is in the South, but it’s not like anywhere else in the South. Hank Williams was from rural Alabama, only a few hours’ drive from New Orleans, but he might as well have been from a different planet. He had two stints on The Louisiana Hayride, a Grand Ole Opry wannabe out of Shreveport, La., but he wasn’t a Louisiana guy, and that comes through when he tries to lay on a little Cajun in the lyrics.
He did know a good party song when he saw one, though, and he and Moon Mullican turned out a doozy with “Jambalaya,” sometimes known as “On the Bayou.” If your foot isn’t tapping when you listen to this song, you must not be paying attention.
Here’s Williams’ recording, a No. 1 country hit in 1952. Mullican’s recording lacks the propulsive power of Williams’ take, but is a nice showcase for Mullican’s deft piano playing. (You’ll also notice different words; possibly he and Williams didn’t agree on exactly how the song should go.)
Want to combine Williams’ propulsive drive and Mullican’s virtuoso piano playing? Well, check out Jerry Lee Lewis doing his thing six years later.