Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams

Nighttime had fallen in the Smoky Mountains

In today's excerpt - Hank Williams (1923 - 1953), the brightest light in country music history and a true avatar of America's rural roots, died in the back of a moving car in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 1953, at twenty-nine. He lived hard - drugs and alcohol, his hardscrabble upbringing, health problems, and his stormy marriage to Audrey spilled out in his songs. The first unabashed country music sex symbol, his leg gyrations and other stage movements were radical for their day. He was overlooked by official Nashville, there were only four mentions of Hank Williams in the Nashville newspapers during his lifetime. They left the Opry and the burgeoning music business to their own devices in those days - it was only "hillbilly" music, after all, something the pooh-bahs of the "Athens of the South" still held with contempt. But the working classes had lost their poet, a proletarian prophet who had touched their souls with his simple heart-breaking lyrics. That was Hank's true audience, the waitresses and the route salesmen and the farmers and the truck drivers of the world, and they began to be heard from almost immediately in their clamor to buy his records in the aftermath of his passing. Of his ten No.1 records, four of them came in the six months following his death:

"Nighttime had fallen in the Smoky Mountains. Hank was worn out, partly from the beer and nips of bourbon and the residue of alcohol that by now was nearly always present in his system, and he and Charley Carr [the teenager he had hired for the night to drive him] arrived at the Andrew Johnson Hotel at seven o'clock, about the time the show would have been opening in Charleston [had the snowstorm not delayed them]. Two porters had to assist Hank to the room they shared.

"The teenaged driver now had a genuine crisis on his hands. They were more than five hundred miles from Canton, up in northern Ohio, and he assumed the weather was much the same between there and Knoxville. The first thing he did was order two steaks from room service, and Hank took only a few bites before going to steep, finally rolling off the bed and falling onto the floor. When Hank began hiccuping, sending his body into convulsions, Carr's call to the front desk summoned a doctor, who came to the room and injected two shots, one of vitamin B6 and one of B12.

"Then Carr managed to contact the promoter, one A.V. Bamford, who told him the Charleston show might be canceled and strongly advised that they get back into the car and continue driving to Canton; the two o'clock matinee was a sellout, four thousand tickets already sold at $2.50 each, and if Hank didn't make it he would owe $1,000 on a penalty clause. The doctor who had given Hank the vitamin shots said he was okay to travel, so at 10:30 a porter came to the room with a wheelchair, sat Hank in it, and delivered him to the car. Hank managed to get out of the wheelchair and crawl into the backseat without anyone's help, cuddling up with the blanket Carr wrapped around him, and off they lurched into the storm. ...

"[Three long hours into the trip], Carr presumed Hank was in a deep sleep as the two-lane highway twisted away from Bluefield, tires humming, telephone poles zipping past in the glare of the headlights. He happened to look over his shoulder for a glance at the form in the backseat - Hank was stretched out on his back, his hands folded across his chest, nothing unusual - and when he noticed that the blanket had fallen away he reached over with his right hand, still driving with his left, to fumble for the blanket and cover Hank with it. It was then that he inadvertently touched Hank's hand. It was stone cold.

"Terror hung in Carr's throat. This was more than he could handle alone. He needed help. Seeing a sign reading 'Oak Hill 6,' his heart pumping furiously, he floored the Cadillac. At the edge of the tiny town there was a cut-rate gas station. He brought the ear to a screeching stop, rushed inside the station, and asked the old man on duty if he would come take a look at the fellow in the backseat. 'Looks like you've got a problem,' the man drawled after he had done so, and directed Carr to the Oak Hill Hospital. There, he parked around back, walked into the hospital, and asked two interns to come out and check on his passenger. They followed him to the car and needed only a glance at Hank's rigid body. 'He's dead, all right,' one of them said. 'But isn't there something you can do to revive him?' said Carr. 'It's too late,' he was told. 'The man's dead.' ...

"[At the autopsy], The doctor almost casually noted that there were needle marks on the arms and that Hank had recently been severely beaten and kicked in the groin. No drugs were found in the blood, just traces of alcohol. A coroner's jury later confirmed that Hank died of 'a severe heart condition and hemorrhage,' and let it go at that."

Linda's Hearth note: I remember everything from the long morning of my childhood, from the moment my Daddy told me Hank Williams had died. This book excerpt from Delancy Place, a blog I like.

Author: Paul Hemphill

Title: Lovesick Blues
Publisher: Viking
Date: Copyright 2005 by Paul Hemphill

Pages: 181-185, 191-192

Hank Williams singing "Hey Good Lookin' "

Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams
by Paul Hemphill by Viking Adult
If you wish to read further: Buy Now

Should you use the above link to purchase a book, delanceyplace proceeds from your purchase will benefit a children's literacy project. Delanceyplace is a not-for-profit organization

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