Hank Williams was only 29 years old when he died in the back of a Cadillac in 1953, while on route to a show in Ohio. Yet, his songwriting still resonates to this day. The man had the ability to write from the heart and touch the listener’s soul. The songs were sincere and spoke to the human condition. Drawing from personal experience, Williams expressed his vulnerability in love, hope, spirituality and pain. He channelled his anguish into poetry, cutting the trail for “hurtin’” songs – a style that so many others followed, and that became cliché in country.
Williams laid the foundation for contemporary songwriting. He was at the forefront of the singer-songwriter movement. His lyrics had rhythm and flow. They were easy to sing. Williams’ use of pacing and repetition of consonants made the words hook into the listener’s subconscious. The songs’ appeal grew and spread. Artists such as Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Ricky Nelson, Jack Scott, Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded Williams’ songs early in their careers.
Pete Seeger once said “all songwriters are links in a chain.” Williams was the link that inspired songwriters such as Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, to name just a few. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recalled, “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars.” Dylan has covered Williams’ songs and has paid tribute to Williams in the liner notes of his first two albums. As well, he oversaw the release of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
When Williams was found dead in the back of that Cadillac, he had in his possession a brown leather briefcase containing four notebooks filled with song ideas. The books were put in the possession of Williams’ publisher, Acuff-Rose. Kept in a fire-proof safe, they remained hidden for decades. When Acuff-Rose was bought by Sony Music Publishing in 2002, the unpublished Williams material was transferred.
Sony Music asked Dylan to put music to some of the lyrics. As the project was too large to handle on his own, Dylan brought other contributors on board: Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm, Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Jack White, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Jakob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Holly Williams joined in, and The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams was released in late 2011.
Bruce Springsteen tried to crack Williams’ code
Just this month, Springsteen was the keynote speaker at the SXSW festival. In his address, Springsteen recalled listening to Williams’ hits over and over, trying to “crack the code.” In a previous blog, I noted how Cohen ranks Williams “a hundred floors above me” in “Tower of Song.”
Perhaps Williams’ granddaughter, Holly, best sums up his legacy by noting that the songs "are timeless, absolutely timeless."
"Every person, every race, every age, every language can relate to his lyrics and beautiful songs,” she says. “We all know heartbreak, we all know joy, we all know spiritual struggles, we all can relate, no matter how different we may be deep down. They will and should always be cherished for their brilliance."
In 2010, Williams was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his songwriting. The citation praises Williams for "his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life."