Hank Williams, the father of modern country music, died in the back seat of a powder blue Cadillac convertible somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee and Oak Hill, West Virginia in the early morning hours of January 1st, 1953. The cause of death was listed as “insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart”. He was known to have ingested alcohol, morphia, and chloral hydrate in the hours preceding his death. Hank Williams was twenty nine years old. He looked fifty. He sounded even older than that.
Williams was a recording artist for only six years. He recorded 66 songs under his own name; 37 of them became hit records. These songs have become features of the American cultural landscape: “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Cold, Cold, Heart”, “Jambalaya”, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”.
In ‘Everybody’s Lonesome for Somebody’: Age, the Body, and Experience in the Music of Hank Williams, Richard Leppart and George Lipsitz explore Williams’ ability to embody different stages of life at once:
…his speaking and singing voices also referenced acoustics culturally characteristic of middle age and beyond, just as his love songs dealt with the failures of middle age, and his gospel tunes with death. In sound and sight alike, he encompassed the experiences of life’s full range of contradictions, hopes and failures for a society which unquestionably recognized in him both what they loved and hated of themselves.
The authors analyze how Williams and his music stood apart from prevailing cultural norms. His bleak songs of loneliness and heartbreak contrasted with the emphasis on the nuclear family and the cult of domesticity following World War Two:
…he foregrounded existential despair in an age of exuberant and uncritical ‘progress’, countering ubiquitous romantic invocations of the superiority of the nuclear family with honest words and deep emotions drawn from the hurts of history and the experiences of everyday life. Millions of fans could feel that he… knew the places they had been.
Existential despair, indeed. Hank Williams has become a signifier. The Mark Turcotte poem BATTLEFIELD contains the lines:
Hank Williams falls again
in the backseat of a Cadillac.
I look back.
A wind off the distant hills lifts my shirt,
brings the scent
of wounded horses.
I heard Hank Williams
had a bad back and sang from that pain
too, as well as how he knew we get lost
when we touch and when we think not to.
He tied words to knot below the skin,
half because on hard nights he was strapped
into his guitar to keep him standing.
He knew what he had to lose.