From Round to Square (and back)

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin' (51)—The Show Hank Never Gave

A year ago on Round and Square (1 January 2012)—Hurtin' Country: My Home's in Alabama
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin,"
[a] Perspective (RF)
There it was. Canton, Ohio. January 1, 1953—sixty years ago to the day. 

Hank Williams was the lead act in two big shows scheduled for that Thursday afternoon and evening. Michigan State was set to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl, but the biggest event in pre-television Canton was a tall, skinny guy who even then was known as Old Hank. He was twenty-nine years old, and the biggest star in Nashville. Quite arguably, no one matched him anywhere in the whole of the United States, and he was popular overseas as well. The Canton shows had been talked about for weeks. They were sold out.  

And they never happened.

Hank never showed.

Hours earlier, Hank lay dead in the back seat of a big '52 Cadillac, having succumbed to liquor, pills, and (some have argued) heartache. His life was a little like a college dormitory sofa. Unnoticed for much of the time, it gets moved to center stage (usually an abandoned lot for the sofa) and a big audience. Then it lights up the night and burns an impossibly brilliant flame before sputtering out just as quickly...and forever.

This is how I think of it. My father approached it somewhat differently when he told me Hank stories while I was growing up. Dad had listened to all of Hank's 45s as he made his youthful way around Mayville, North Dakota in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Hank wasn't "country," he told me. Hank was music. Dad told of radio shows with Hank's folksy chatter, and even late night rebroadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry on WSM (50,000 watts of nighttime power) that could make it up the Red River beyond Fargo, and almost to Winnipeg. 

He ended with a cautionary note. "Son," he said seriously (this is how I remember it now), "it isn't easy to drink yourself to death at the age of twenty-nine." He went on to explain that abuse that serious took hard work, and more than a little cognitive turmoil. I forgot the overall point (something about leading a life of relative moderation, I think), so entranced was I by the idea of a legend burning out before thirty.
[c] Career RF

Years later, reading a biography of Hank Williams in advance of an interdisciplinary seminar on country music and East Asian poetry (this really happened), I chanced upon a line that has stayed with me as powerfully as dad's observation about hard drinking. Colin Escott observed, if I recall correctly, that for months during 1952 Hank Williams had missed shows, showed up drunk, and generally been a pretty undependable figure in a world that needed punctuality and organization. DJs and booking agents were losing interest, and Hank's career was threatened with a downward spiral. Then it all changed, and Hank's reputation skyrocketed, blazing even brighter than before...lasting for all of the next sixty years.

"Sometimes," Escott noted, "death is a good career move."
[d] Sinology RF

It was for Hank Williams, unpleasant though the full implications of that thought might be. You see, Hank could still be with us had things turned out a little differently. He could be eighty-nine years old, and revered by generations of country artists in the way that Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, and others have been (he would be a lot more interesting than his kid, that's for sure). I sometimes imagine Hank, sitting in a rocking chair, explaining success on the stage. Word has it that he would do all sorts of fascinating musical things when working with his band in a relaxed setting. When they got on stage, though, he was all (show) business. 

"Just give 'em vanilla, boys," he cautioned. And off they went.
***  ***
In Chinese cosmology and historiography, there is a way of counting that marks the years in an ever-repeating cycle of sixty. Over the millennia, observers have sometimes remarked that every sixtieth year is similar, and a sinologist once remarked that we should translate a major work of scholarship in 1994, precisely because it was originally published in 1934, and "it would be like no time has passed at all." 

I am thinking about Hank Williams that way today. It was sixty years ago....exactly. It is as though time never passed.

[e] Hank RF

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