From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (8)—Meetin' Hank

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'..."
[a] Twilight (in Montgomery)  RF
There is something about icons. Their relevance never fades, and where stories of lesser figures might start to veer into cliché, theirs seem to deepen and thicken. One of the greatest American poets is like that. Hank Williams (1923-1953) continues to generate interest, almost sixty years after his death. In fact, as can be seen with certain other icons in world culture, death often has everything to do with it. Yes, we do occasionally encounter the iconic elder statesman or (wo)man of letters. Think hard; there are a few. Yet we seem drawn—is this "cultural" or is something else going on?—to those who die with unfinished business.

Among my favorite introductory lines in any book (it appears in the third paragraph) are those from Colin Escott's biography of Hank Williams:

[b] The suit  RF
Death is a sound career move if it can be timed right, and Hank Williams's triumph was to avoid growing old disgracefully. Not for Hank the haggard mask of senility. In terms of forging a legend, he could have done no better than to burn out at twenty-nine before his fire grew dim and the face of country music changed. Had he lived, he might have become a poor parody of himself, shamelessly hustling tepid remakes of his greatest hits on cable shows. As it is, his premature death left what is still the most important single body of work in country music, as well as the tantalizing promise of what might have been. In life Hank Williams defined the argot of contemporary country music; in death he set the standard by which success on every level—even self-destruction—is measured.[1]

Think about that. He rose to the top, created a truly formidable body of work that has seared its way into the American cultural soul (your cheatin' heart; there's a tear in my beer), and burned himself out—all by the age of twenty-nine. Don't doubt me on this, people. If you think I am just talkin', why don't you check out the list of Hank Williams tribute songs? Yup, just songs about Hank—one of America's premier poets.

My dad used to tell me Hank Williams stories, and I loved listening to the old 45s that he had saved since his own childhood. The songs with both Hank and Audrey singing were, well, memorable. One line from my father's stories stuck with me, though. I am not sure if it was a throwaway line or a warning, but I'll never forget it. You see, the old boy, Hank, was a worker. As my dad said: "It's hard to drink yourself to death at twenty-nine; it takes determination...and even a kind of plan."

The details of Hank's life and death are everywhere. A reasonable place to start, if you are interested (and anyone, anywhere, who loves good writing should be) is the Hank Williams fan club. It has its ups and downs (they are fanatics, after all), but there is a great deal of information there. You can't beat it for a solid start.

Today's post is about Hank, the legend. I have two songs (in three versions) for you. They can all be characterized as:
runnin' into the (dead) legend—and that would be Hank...
songs, and form a little sub-sub-genre in world poetry. Yes, this theme goes beyond American poetry, as you will see, below. If you are a careful reader of literary traditions beyond the United States and China, you will come up with more examples. They are out there (and please do post a comment if you have a favorite).

The first song is an absolute masterwork by the highly successful country music star (and under-appreciated songwriter), Alan Jackson (and Donald Sampson). This song is so good—so chock full of references to Hank's life and music—that it deserves its lofty status among Hank fans and "readers." I would like to go through it line-by-line, and may do someday, in another post. I hope you listen and read carefully. If you can catch even the twenty clearest references, you are doing well.

             Midnight in Montgomery
                    —Alan Jackson
                   (Donald Sampson, Alan Jackson)

                    Midnight in Montgomery, silver eagle, lonely road
                    I was on my way to Mobile for a big New Year's Eve show
                    I stopped for just a minute to see a friend outside of town
                    Put my collar up, I found his name, and felt the wind die down

                    Then a drunk man in a cowboy hat took me by surprise
                    Wearing shiny boots, a Nudi suit and haunting haunted eyes
                    He said "Friend it's good to see you, it's nice to know you care"
                    Then the wind picked up and he was gone
                    Was he ever really there?


                    'Cause it's midnight in Montgomery
                    Just hear that whippoorwill
                    See the stars light up the purple sky
                    Feel that lonesome chill
                    'Cause when the wind is right, you'll hear his songs
                    Smell whiskey in the air
                    Midnight in Montgomery
                    He's always singing there

                   Well, I climbed back on that eagle, took one last look around
                   Through red tail lights a shadow moved slow across the ground
                   And off somewhere a midnight train is slowly passing by
                   I could hear that whistle moaning
                   I'm so lonesome I could cry

                   Repeat chorus
                  He's always singing there
                  Oh, Hank's always singing there

There are many more Meetin' Hank songs, and I am just going to give you one of the most entertaining and downright fun versions that has been popular recently (remember, I teach history, so "recently" means "since 1970" to me). The lyrics start this way:
While I was huntin' wild turkey and sippin' on Jim Beam...
You can imagine where it goes from there.  Just listen to the rest from both Mark Chesnutt and George Jones, who originally recorded this together back in the early 1990s.

                  Talkin' to Hank
                  Mark Chesnutt & George Jones
                  (Bobby Harden)

                  While I was huntin' wild turkey and sippin’ on Jim Beam
                  I walked up on something like I’ve never seen
                  So deep in the woods where I thought I was alone
                  Stood a structure where something or someone called home.

                  I saw a shotgun and guitar and six-pack of beer
                  A sign on the front door said "guess who lives here?"
                  An old red bone hound that looked older than time
                  And an old man that swore that he was only twenty-nine.


                 I swear he looked just like ol' Hank
                 I wouldn’t bet a wooden nickel that he ain’t
                 I got goose bumps and dizzy and felt kinda faint
                 I think I’ve been talkin’ to Hank.


                He said I’ve played that old guitar in a drifting country band
                Played coast to coast and a few foreign lands
                (He said) some crowds were big and some crowds were small
                Somehow I hope I let ’em know I loved them all.

                I said you’re mighty skinny, he said would you believe
                That it only took one woman to do this to me
                But you gotta get your hat son, just get on out of the way
                When they start hatin' to love and start lovin' to hate.

                Repeat chorus


                Repeat chorus
                Lord, I feel like I've been talkin' to poor old Hank... 

***  ***
We turn now to another legend-meets-legend theme in a poetic tradition half a world (and more than a millennium) away. In this case, a legend writes about a legend. Li Bo and Du Fu (mentor and disciple, for a time) were among the greatest poets ever to live and write in China. They actually wrote about each other more than anyone might guess. Let's take a quick look at a version or three.

In order to get this posted on-time, I am quoting from other translations of the poems. I hope to have my own (and Chinese text) posted later this week.

             To Send to Tu Fu (Du Fu) as a Joke
                    Li Bo (Tang; 701-762)
                    I ran into Tu Fu by a Rice Grain Mountain,
                    In a bamboo hat with the sun high at noon.
                    Hasn't he got awfully thin since our parting?
                    It must be the struggle of writing his poems.[2] 

                   At the Sky's End, Thinking of Li Po
                    Du Fu (Tang; 712-770)
                    Cold winds                  rise from the edge of heaven
                    True Gentleman          how fares your thought
                    wild geese                   what hour is your arrival
                    river and lake              swell with autumn waters
                    literature                      is averse to good fortune
                    marsh trolls                  relish the passerby
                    you ought to share      a word with the slandered spirit
                    hurl a poem                 to him in the Mi-lo River[3]

[c] Tower view  RF

             At Night, Climbing the White Emperor Tower, 
             Thinking of Du Fu
                    Li Bo (Tang; 701-762)       
                    A mender of mistakes,
                    white-haired, who misses him?
                    Down and out, he sang
                    over all the Twin Streams                
                    and stood on his winged tower
                    as though here tonight.
                    Drifts, gyres of the derelict moon
                    still unchanged—
                    upgraded or cashiered?

                    These things never cease
                    but naive or knowing, man's days
                    have a like deadline.
                    Headwork brings chill:
                    whom can I have a word with?
                    Night's crypt. Gull and egret
                    Lift from sand's edge.[4]

[1] Colin Escott, Hank Williams: The Biography (New York: Little, Brown and Company), ix-x.
[2] Victor Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 203. Translated  by Elling Eide.
[3]Mair, Anthology, 217. Translated by David Lattimore.
[4] Mair, Anthology, 228. Translated by Victor Mair.

Escott, Colin. Hank Williams: The Biography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Mair, Victor. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 

Too Cold
Our respite from utter misery has been short-lived. Father's Day has come and gone, and our ode to father figures (Hank, Li, Du) must give way again to heart-rending, lyrical pain. Next week, we'll start to turn up the...cold a little bit with a pair of songs about icy conjugal relations. I'll be waiting (waitin') for you, with a frosty, cool mug and a set of real downer songs.

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