Note: Joe Bageant died in 2011 at age 64. I knew him only for the last eight years of his life. I launched and managed his website — still do. About six weeks ago, I posted an article Joe had written when he was a beginning writer in Colorado. A scan of that article, “In the footsteps of Neal Cassady’s ghost“, had been sent to me by an old friend of Joe’s.
I had no idea what the response might be to Joe’s take on Neal Cassady, but it was favorable and readers have asked for more. The article below is about Hank Williams. In the coming weeks, I will post more of Joe’s early writing — and keep doing it as long as there is interest.
– Ken Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tribute to a white trash saint
The Colorado Daily, Sept. 8, 1976.
By Joe Bageant
Hiram Hank Williams was his full name and he was born in Georgiana, Alabama on Sept. 17, 1923, the son of a railroad engineer and a very crude and dominant mother whose character had been permanently scarred by the harsh realities of a dirt-poor South.
Facts concerning his early musical development are hard to obtain from people who knew him in his youth.
Because of their great pride in his later fame, they all claim to have had a hand in it. It’s a fairly safe bet that he got his share of white gospel music as a child; even today it’s inescapable in this region of Alabama. But the only individual firmly established to have had a direct influence on Williams was an old black street minstrel named Tee-Tot, known to have given guitar lessons to the young Williams, who followed him about.
If one were to choose the single factor — other than native talent — which pushed Williams out of the foggy anonymity of a small southern town and onto the path of fame, it would undoubtedly be his early marriage to his first wife, Audrey. It came natural for this ‘Bama boy — who throughout his life carried the tragic flaw of the deep southern style of matriarchal family — to marry a woman as forceful and overbearing as his own, someone to take the responsibility for his life upon herself. Before long, Audrey had him performing at every county fair and candy show in the cotton belt.
By 1946 Williams found himself being pushed through the office doors of the largest recording and publishing outfit in Nashville, Acuff-Rose. And on that day, the still-primitive country-music industry connected with the gangly upping man who, shy hick that he was, would be the living embodiment of a style and form which would become the one all others would be judged against — and generate wealth of unbelievable proportions.
As Audrey prompted Williams from the background, he stood in the office and sang five songs, all destined to become great classics. Astounded at the young man’s ability, yet skeptical one man could have actually written all five, Fred Rose sent Williams into a back room with orders to “Write some kind of song right here on the spot as proof.” Fifteen minutes later he returned from the room with “Mansion on the Hill,” performed to this day by such people as John Denver and Michael Murphey.
Rose was something of a genius when it came to hillbilly music and had pioneered the field about as far as it could go until that time. In Williams he instantly knew he had the key to the hearts of rural America and ultimately a broader audience. Rose did well by Williams — making him a household word throughout the South and West, and a moderately wealthy man off the income from songs like “Move It On Over” and “When God comes to Gather His Jewels.”
True success didn’t arrive until Williams’ material caught on in the national pop field.
It was a full two years before the perfect break came their way, enabling them to crash the popular market. It came with the aid of one of the most unlikely persons imaginable, considering the Williams image.
That person was Tony Bennett. Bennett recorded “Cold, Cold Heart,” which sold millions and exposed the Alabama songwriter’s talents to the urban public.
I remember distinctly the impact he had on many of my relatives and neighbors in rural Virginia during the early 50s. Williams and what he represented was more important, held in higher esteem than even the President (of course the hill people of Appalachia never seem to be satisfied with anyone occupying the White House because of the fierce distrust inherited from their Scotch-Irish ancestors of anything that smells like authority).
Although everyone was very proud and a staunch Baptist or Methodist who believed in the virtues of God and hard work, most of them felt far removed from the America which generated movies, popular music or new and fashionable things. So when “Ole Hank” would sing “Why cain’t ah free your dutiful mind, and mayult yore cold, cold hart?” millions of them flashed: “Jesus Christ, I don’t believe it! He’s one of us!”
For a long time I thought this primitive level of identification was perhaps unique only to those people I knew, but since then I’ve met Alabamans, Mississippians, and Louisianians who’ve experienced the same thing. But this is a reaction from way back up in the sticks, and not necessarily the most typical.
While Williams embodied many of the touching and beautiful aspects of the South and Southeastern honkey culture, he also exposed nearly all of their bitterest faults and weaknesses. An alcoholic since his late teens, he came to be driven by a multitude of his own personal demons, becoming more self-destructive and withdrawn as the years passed. At the peak of his career he was failing miserably as a performer because of drunkenness, malnutrition and, towards the end, excessive use of pills. Countless thousands saw him stagger around mumbling, falling off stages or in a state of total helplessness. If he bothered to show up at all.
I’ve asked many people who saw him perform or knew him when he was in Nashville for their impressions. Most of them weren’t exactly pretty:
“Up to a point, liquor and pills just made him sing better and better. Then, all of a sudden, he’d just cave in. Sometimes he would get real mean. You never knew which way he was going to go.”
“I don’t think he was so much a hateful guy inside. It was more like he would be burned up . . . or burned out as they call it. Blind crazy drunk and nothing mattered.”
By the end of 1952 Williams had become the most pathetic figure in country music. Divorced, addicted, shunned by his fellow artists, he careened around getting in and out of trouble. During this time he began taking a series of “treatments” from a weird occult quack doctor, named Tobias Marshall, which contributed to the massive physical deterioration near the end.
September of ’52 found him getting married to an ignorant, 19-year-old girl named Billie Jean Jones on the stage of an auditorium before several thousand gawkers who’d each paid 50 cents to get in. But it would be one of the last acts in the tragicomedy of country music’s brightest star. At 29 he had only three months left.
On New Year’s Eve the reaper smiled, and Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac plowing through the hills of West Virginia. Too much booze, too many pills. Outside the car, the icy teeth of a blizzard snapped.
And on New Year’s Day, all over the nation Hank Williams’ fans cried in front of bulky old Philco radios leaking eulogies onto the hooked rug.
That was also the same day Billie Jean Jones stood on the toilet to slap her mother-in-law across the face and claw her eyes in a knock-down drag-out fight over Hank’s car.
And Audrey, God bless her heart, was down at the funeral home removing the watch and rings from Hank’s body.
The whole damned affair was so damned beautifully honkey white trash that it hurts. Just like his music did.
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A Boulder freelancer and frequent Daily contributor, Bageant has worked as a blues researcher for Columbia Records.