Hank Williams’ songs were cries from the darkness; made to be heard while running through the lonely night, racing with the moon… The lyrics dealt not with true love and harvest moons and life as it should be, but rather with the way it had turned out: broken hearts, dead mamas, whiskey, knife fights, prison, graveyards, unrequited love, loneliness…
[He] had come to us from out of nowhere — sprouting like a wild dandelion in the dank forests of south Alabama, some primordial beast who had been let loose on the land, a specimen heretofore undiscovered… nobody seemed to know exactly what to make of him.
Cold, Cold Heart
Born sickly, half-educated, virtually fatherless, an alcoholic by his teen years, untutored musically, unlucky in love at every turn, he had somehow emerged as a tortured genius, a raw poet, the “hillbilly Shakespeare”, a Vincent van Gogh of the southern outback.
All we knew then was that he seemed to be living his life and writing his songs for us… and that was all that mattered. It was as though he had… eavesdropped on our dreams, felt our pulses, found the key to our souls… the sound of his voice like a mournful overture for a movie that was certain to end in disaster.
Your Cheatin’ Heart
Where and when he got his first guitar has long been a matter of conjecture; he could have lined a wall with all the first guitars people claimed to have given him. Talking to Ralph J. Gleason, though, Hank said the first one came from his mother…
She had bought him a Sears Silvertone guitar when he was eight.
Several people remember him practicing under their house on Rose Street… Lilly, who was trying to catch some sleep above, would lean out of the window and yell, ‘Harm, hush up that fuss!’
In the fall of 1933, as he was turning ten…
… Hank moved to [a lumber community fifty miles west of Georgiana called] Fountain, to live with his cousins, the McNeils.
A whole new world had opened up for [young Hiram] and he was gulping it in; an adventuresome barefoot boy… with people to meet, places to go, and things to explore.
The Old Log Train
Young “Harm” found simple southern music at its source during his sojourn in Fountain. Little churches were everywhere in the countryside of Monroe County (scant miles from where a young woman named Nelle Harper Lee would write the novel To Kill a Mockingbird), sanctuaries for both the Scots-Irish lumber people and the freed African American slaves now toiling as sharecroppers and tenant farmers in what remained of the cotton fields.
His aunt Alice taught him the rudiments of music and his cousin J.C. showed him what growing up in the woods was all about.
Long Gone Lonesome Blues
The boys ran free in the woods — fishing, hunting, eavesdropping through the windows of the primitive white and black churches to hear the pained yowls of gloom and doom.
“Wednesday evenings, me and Hiram would sit on a board fence around their house and listen to the Negro church,” said his neighbor Harold Sims. “The most beautiful music in the world. The breeze came from the south and it would undulate the sound. One minute soft, one minute loud, like it was orchestrated. One night, Hiram looked up at me and said, ‘One day, I’m gonna write songs like that.'”
Death is Only a Dream – Edward Clayborn
Years later, Hank told his first wife, Audrey, that his favorite song was Death is Only a Dream; its morbidity and superstition resonated within him in a way that the era’s popular songs never did: Sadly we sing and with tremulous breath / As we stand by the mystical stream / In the valley and by the dark river of death / And yet ’tis no more than a dream.
Much else informed Hank Williams’ music, but the essence of it is there. From the holy songs, Hank learned how to express profound sentiments in words that an unlettered farmer could understand, and he came to appreciate music’s spiritual component. He also loved the warm glow of recognition that simple melodies elicited, and their effect was so profound that his own melodies would rarely be more complicated than the hymns and folk songs he heard as a child.
I Saw the Light
On Saturday nights Hiram and J.C. hovered around the edges of the roiling country dances held in schoolhouses beneath the pines… They watched to see where the men stashed their whiskey outside in the bushes, out of deference to the Lord and to their wives…
... then they’d sneak over, steal it and make off into the woods. They’d drink, as the saying went around there, ’till they could have laid on the ground and fallen off it.
When he returned to Georgiana that summer it was clear that he had undergone vast changes. There had been his discovery of booze as an escape… and learning the basic chords on the guitar from his aunt Alice and experiencing the joys and sorrows of the heartfelt backwoods music in the churches and at the dances.
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
It would be hard to argue that the sensitive Hiram, a quick learner who took every experience to heart, hadn’t filed away the observations that would later be hailed as some of his greatest lines as a songwriter: a robin weeping as the leaves begin to fall, having ‘lost the will to live’; a moon going behind a cloud ‘to hide its face and cry’; the ‘silence of a falling star’ lighting up a purple sky… He had gone straight to the roots: alone, in the woods, making mental notes of what he saw and heard and felt.
Back in town, a frail kid who had seen enough of the bruising life of men whose lot was to cut down trees and drag them away, he seemed to have found an option even as he approached his eleventh birthday. He would make music.
Hey, Good Lookin’
[To help his ma] he sold peanuts and fruit and sandwiches, shined shoes, delivered newspapers and groceries, and was generally available to run errands of any sort.
About thirty percent of the people living in Georgiana during the Depression were African American descendants of the slaves whose sweat had made cotton king before the Civil War and those six hundred or so souls had learned to keep a low profile. The unspoken “Jim Crow” laws separating the races had sufficiently cowed the blacks to the point of utter submission.
[Young Hiram] must have felt his heart jump into his throat the first time he saw a sight that was new on the streets of Georgiana: an old black man with a guitar, strumming and singing for passersby, nodding and smiling and mumbling a thank-you whenever someone dropped a coin into the crumpled hat [or cigar box] at his feet. It was the boy’s first glimpse of a professional musician at work.
Tee Tot Song – Hank Williams Jr.
Hank met his first acknowledged musical influence… Rufus Payne. Everybody knew him as “Tee-Tot” in a wry nod to his drinking… He was rarely found without a home-brewed mix of [moonshine whiskey] and tea.
Hank Williams often credited [this] itinerant bluesman for putting the soul in his fire…
“Only when he found that old black man who taught him how to play guitar did he begin to find a purpose for his loneliness. You could hear it coming out in every song he wrote.”
– Billy Walker (A&E Biography)
According to researcher Alice Harp, Rufus was born in 1884 on the Payne Plantation in Sandy Ridge, Lowndes County, Alabama. His parents had been slaves there, but they moved to New Orleans around 1890, giving Rufus a front-row seat for the birth of jazz. After his parents died, Rufus settled in Greenville, Alabama.
He was about fifty years old, lived somewhat fitfully with a wife who was not amused by his drinking, his “evil” music… [or that] he regarded himself a troubadour. He performed on the streets of Greenville, sometimes with one friend on a harmonica and another on a washtub bass… Now and then, to reach new audiences, he would get on the train alone and ride down the tracks to perform at the depot and on the sidewalks in Georgiana.
Hiram was mesmerized. Tee-Tot had the temerity to dress as well as he could afford, wearing a jacket and a tie if the weather was right… He sang the blues and threw in some gospel, adding a lazy effect on his guitar with the use of a slide stuck on a finger of his fretting hand (fashioned from the broken neck of a whiskey bottle), and he knew how to pitch a song: singing and strumming with much verve, stopping and bowing, laughing and crying; a serious performer at work.
Move It On Over
A crowd of kids followed Tee-Tot around, but Hank was the only one who wanted to do more than listen. He wanted to learn.
Hiram followed Tee-Tot everywhere when the old man came to town during that summer of ’34, pestering him, offering fifteen cents or whatever he could come up with to buy his companionship and maybe a lesson on certain blues notes.
Tee-Tot’s house was a shack near the railroad tracks in Greenville, and seldom did a day pass when they weren’t together: swapping licks at the old man’s house, playing for change on the sidewalks, peeking in on the blacks-only gin joints in town, performing on busy Saturdays at the courthouse square… They shared the blues and they shared nips of whiskey from Tee-Tot’s flask.
By most accounts, [this] was the man who taught Hank the value of a hard-driving rhythm — a staple of Hank Williams’ music.
One of the elements that would set Hank apart from his contemporaries was the irresistible drive to his music. He was never an accomplished guitarist, but his hands would always take their cue from his forceful rhythm guitar playing. He whanged the E chord in a way that any blues singer would recognize…
As unfashionable as it was to acknowledge the influence of black musicians, Hank later went out of his way to give Payne full credit.
Talking to jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, [Hank] said, “I learned to play the guitar from an old colored man. I was shinin’ shoes, sellin’ newspapers and followin’ [him] around to get him to teach me to play the guitar. I’d give him fifteen cents or whatever I could get a hold of for the lesson.”
Hank acknowledged Payne again during his Greenville Homecoming and apparently searched for him, but Payne had died in a charity hospital in Montgomery on March 17, 1939. His trade or profession was marked “unknown”.
“All the music training I ever had was from him,” he told the Montgomery Advertiser.
Tear in My Beer – ft. Hank Williams Jr.
There was a movie theater where he was a regular at the day-long ‘pitcher shows’ featuring cowboy singing stars every Saturday… “Hiram” wouldn’t cut it anymore. From his exposure to cowboy movies and country radio shows and comic books, he had determined that “Hank” was more in line with the career he fancied for himself, as a writer and singer of country songs.
[Excerpts taken from Lovesick Blues by Paul Hemphill and Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott]