Battlepanda: He didn't get out of this world alive


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

He didn't get out of this world alive

There are enough hipster Johnny Cash fans to line around the block in the blogisphere (not that there's anything wrong with that -- I'm one my self, the Johnny Cash fan part, not the hipster part), but it's a rare thing indeed to find another blogger with a good appreciation of Hank Williams. He's too twangy. Too Honky. Too embarrasingly lacking in crossover appeal.

I agree with Publius' take on Hank Williams' songs. (At least, I think I do. I'm never sure what people mean once they start doing things like referencing the Nietzchean idea of human emotion.) While there is nothing wrong with them and some of them are classics of their kind, I don't think they have enough intrinsic poeticism to merit the title "the Hillbilly Shakespeare" for Hank. If anything, I think Hank Williams is more like the Hillbilly Billy Holliday -- the soulfulness and the art in both performers come more in the delivery than the song than is contained in the song itself. Both have unconventional, "flawed" voices that are paradoxically more expressive than the kind of smooth delivery we associate with the "perfect" voice. Both artists transcend their material.

Exhibit A for my theory: Norah Jones' anodyne delivery of "Cold, cold heart". It is possible to do great covers of Hank William songs. But you must do more than just sing the song -- you need to take a little bit of Hank with you when you do it. Norah Jones, who does have a great voice, does a pretty straight-up smooth Jazz version that sounds tailor-made for Adult contemporary radio. I think comparing her version and Hank's of "Cold, cold heart" is pretty good evidence that Hank William's songs, even the best ones, are simply the blank canvas rather than poetry in and of themselves.

Exhibit B: Kaw-Liga, one of my favorite Hank Williams Songs of all time --

Kaw-Liga was a wooden indian standing by the door
He fell in love with the Indian maid over by the antique store
Kaw-Liga ---- Just stood there and never let it show, so she could never answer yes or no

You get the idea. Musically, the song is an effective but simplistic one-chord approximation of "Indian" music. Lyrically, it's nowhere as hokey as a song about song about a lovelorn cigar store indian would be expected to be. It's got a nice wistfulness that reminds me of Hans Anderson's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier". But it's hardly anything special either. No. What elevates "Kaw-Liga" into the realm of the extraordinary is that crackly, nasal delivery. It's the way Williams break into falsetto for the final syllable of "kaw-li-JAH...." that infuses the song with the necessary dose of lonesome.