Ain't No Light

Williams is frequently mentioned as a proto-Elvis--same race, class, region. Same basic gospel and blues influences. Same rise to stardom via The Louisiana Hayride. But when I think of Hank Williams I don't think of Elvis Presley. I think of Elvis Presley's dad. Elvis was fun and sex and cars and girls. Elvis's father Vernon was prison and debt and no-luck-at-all. When Elvis performed "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in Hawaii, he called it "the saddest song I've ever heard." Vernon probably heard it as a rundown of every other night of his life, and he and his kind were Hank's true audience.

One of the many beauties of Elvis, who made his first Sun recordings only a year after Hank died, is that he was defiantly postwar. Except for some radio performances in the early '40s, Hank's recordings take place between 1946 and 1952, not that you'd know it. You can't hear the new American world of shiny gadgets and cute little houses and gold lamé pants. The war's over, but Hank might as well be stuck in Europe eating rations and walking through bomb rubble.

You could argue that the redemption in the Williams oeuvre is of the godly sort--that he included gospel numbers in all his shows, that he's the author of "I Saw the Light" with its "no more in darkness" refrain. I don't believe this for a second. If Hank Williams bought into Christian crap like "I'll Have a New Body (I'll Have a New Life)," his faith faded the second the song went off the air. At his worst, he might have been a false witness, preaching things he wanted to believe but didn't. In an epigraph from Minnie Pearl in the booklet, she describes once driving to a show with Hank, who just so happened to be sloshed. She remembered, "And I started singing his number 'I Saw the Light.' He started out, and all of us were singing 'I Saw the Light.' Then he stopped and said, 'Quit! Hush! I don't want to hear that. I don't want to hear it, 'cause there ain't no light.' "

How on earth he could sing these often suicidal songs after the hokey chitchat that precedes them is anybody's guess.
Country Music Hall of Fame
How on earth he could sing these often suicidal songs after the hokey chitchat that precedes them is anybody's guess.

Why, then, did he keep on singing it? Broadcastingit? Did he have any idea that others would learn it? That preachers would use it? Did he know that crummy little backwater churches would sing it in congregation? That every time they did the preacher would introduce it as a song by Hank Williams, a man who found fame and fortune but wrote this song denouncing earthly pleasures in exchange for the perfection of the afterlife? Could he have watched all those long-suffering women hold their hands up to heaven, even though he, Hank Williams, was too tired and too drunk and in too much pain to even believe in hell?

Hank Williams represents an extreme. It's not like he invented hopelessness, but he perfected it. These are very moving records, and I'll keep coming back to them. I can bear them in 1998, but I don't know that I could have in 1952. Because in 1998, I know what comes next. In 1998, I can trust myself with "Alone and Forsaken" because I'm vaccinated with awopbopaloobops and mmmbops and all the giddiness in between. More than anything, The Complete Hank Williams is an argument for rock'n'roll.

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