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The Singer: A Biography
If the good Lord's willing, and the creek don't rise ...
Nobody bothered to chronicle the childhood of a scruffy, dirt-poor kid growing up in rural Alabama. History became interested in him only after that child came to be famous; and even then it did not rush forward, for few guessed that Hank Williams would be dead before his thirtieth birthday. Time seemed abundant. Hank himself would not have told much anyway. His interviews are few, and they are consistently terse and perfunctory. No Barbara Walters was on hand to draw him out. Childhood was not an especially fond memory for Hank anyway, and he seemed content to let it lie. The result is that his early years are hard to pin down. The information is sketchy and therefore has been particularly susceptible to the stories of friends and relatives, many of them eager to take credit for a career or to protect the image of a hero who was sadly flawed.
If everyone who claims to have given Hank Williams his first guitar had really done so, he might have opened a music store. And if he really became so excited when he got his guitar that he ran out through the yard, jumped on a calf, and twisted its tail, getting thrown and breaking his arm—an injury that kept him from picking any music for a while—I would be surprised. I also find it hard to believe the popular tale that Hank squandered 30¢ on fireworks only to get home to a spanking thatset off his purchase in his back pocket. And if all who claimed to be at Mount Olive Baptist Church while a three-year-old Hank Williams sat by his mother as she played the organ, learning there his first rhythm and religion, that sanctuary must have been the size of St. Peter's.
Some facts are clear, however. The parents of Hank Williams were married on 12 November 1916, by Reverend J. C. Dunlap in Butler County, Alabama. Elonzo H. Williams was almost twenty-five, and his bride, Jessie Lillie Belle Skipper, was eighteen. Lon, the youngest of eleven children, was from Lowndes County, the county adjacent to and just south of Montgomery. According to Colin Escort, a recent biographer, Lon's mother, Anne Autrey Williams, committed suicide when the boy was only six years old. His father, Irvin, died eleven years later, making Lon Williams an orphan. But Lon had been basically on his own after quitting school in the sixth grade to begin work as a water boy in the logging camps. He worked his way up in the logging business, eventually becoming a locomotive driver for the W. T. Smith Lumber Company, an outfit that employed as many as 1,200 hands to saw timber and build fruit and produce crates.
His bride, Lillie, was from Butler County, just down the road (one would travel 1-65 today) from Lon's haunts. She grew up near Georgiana, a small town about sixty miles south of Montgomery. Lillie was living with her family on a farm and in a house owned by the Mixon family when Lon came to propose. Chet Flippo, another biographer, says that Lon hitched a ride to his intended's house, proposed, and then hitched a ride to the church for the wedding, all in one day. The wedding license was taken out the day before, however, which indicates a little more planning than this story allows.
The scene here is bleak. Times had never been easy in this part of the world, not since the Civil War. The depression that loomed ahead would not have much impact on most of the local folk. Lowndes County—part of a region known as the "Black Belt," not for its considerable black population but for its dark soil—was basically agricultural. Its population of 23,000 in 1930 is about half that today. Butler County was home to 30,000 people in 1930. The following is a promotional description of Butler's largest towns, Greenville and Georgiana, both of which figure in the early years of Hank Williams:
Greenville, with a population of about 5,000, remains the largest and most important town. It has paved streets, electricity, white way posts and sanitary sewerage, with a number of modern business buildings and homes adjoining the venerable ones of historic construction. Cotton gins, grist mills, a lumber mill, a pants factory, a machine shop, a fertilizer mixing plant and ice factory contribute to an industrial inventory whose overwhelmingly largest item is a 10,000 spindle cotton mill for which the citizens of Greenville made a notable subscription. This is one of the two cities in the United States to have a plant for the preservation of magnolia, beach and oak leaves for decorative purposes. Georgiana, the second ranking community, is a shipping and timber manufacturing center with paved streets, electric lights, a large casket factory, and a municipally owned water system.
It could not have been easy to be so enthusiastic about a small Southern town trying to move from agriculture to industry. We should also keep in mind that, in its beginnings, the Williams family did not exactly live in the city.
The newlyweds spent their first six months with Lillie's family, on the Mixon farm outside Georgiana. The first place they had to themselves was a leased home near Mount Olive Community in Butler County. The double-pen house was in two three-room sections joined by a wide hall, sometimes called a "dog run." The couple, already searching for a steady means of support, opened a store in one side of the house. At the same time, they bought a small patch and started a strawberry business.
Lon's life was tough. The time and place had little to offer, especially to an uneducated man; and his wife, who was capable of surviving on her own, offered no sympathy. His life was complicated when he was drafted into the military, where he served from 9 July 1918 through 26 June 1919, part of that time in France. Just what happened to him overseas is not entirely clear. Jay Caress reports that he was shell-shocked and gassed, whereas Chet Flippo, apparently working from an obscure interview with Lon, says that he was injured in a fight with another soldier over a French girl. Colin Escort prefers the Flippo version. But Leila Williams Griffin, Lon's daughter by a later marriage and thus Hank's half-sister, told me in a letter of 18 April 1982 that her father fell from a truck, breaking his collarbone and suffering a blow to the head that would give him problems for years to come. Lon Williams, whatever the cause, came home from Europe a nervous and unsteady man who was no match for either a large, aggressive wife or a mean economy.
Lon's difficulties increased as his children were born. The first infant died. Then Irene was born on 8 August 1922, and just over a year later, on 17 September 1923, Lillie gave birth to Hank Williams. One rumor is that Lon wanted to name the boy King, but that Lillie held out for Hiram. The handwritten birth certificate, which was not filed until 1 March 1934, misspells the child's name as "Hiriam." So Hank was to be Hiram, probably until 1937 when the family moved to Montgomery. By then, Hank Snow was an influence, and Hank Williams might have liked the cowboy image better than that of outback Alabama.
The picture is this: an already poor Alabama getting set for a depression, a husband and father weak because of his war injury, a dominant wife and mother, and two children. The best facsimile of their life as a young family is probably in the photographs that Walker Evans took for James Agee's text in the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The pictures of Alabama in the early 1930s include an excellent one of a double-pen house that could have been Hank's, and the families depicted could have been his as well. "Poor but proud" would do as a general description, but poverty had the upper hand.
Life of this sort leads one to pursue every possible means of making a little money. A small farm may help feed a family, but hard cash—and what it would buy—looks all the better for its absence. Lon worked off and on at the lumber yards. He and Lillie opened another store. They tried the strawberry business on land burned out with cotton. Lillie worked as a nurse, took in sewing, worked at the cannery, and gardened. Hank and Irene sold peanuts and seeds and picked cotton and strawberries. Hank delivered groceries and shined shoes. Pursuit of a better life meant many moves—to places like Chapman, Garland, McWilliams, and Georgiana—all before 1935, when the family moved to Greenville. Two years later, the Williams moved to Montgomery.
Lon had trouble keeping up. In 1929, probably in November, he left home. He was not in Garland when Hank's cousin, Taft Skipper, and his bride, Erleen, moved in with Lillie, Irene, Hank, and Grandma Skipper in December 1929. Lon apparently had begun a long series of stays in Veterans Administration hospitals. Leila Williams Griffin, in the letter noted above, explains that the blow Lon suffered in France produced an aneurysm close to his brain, paralyzing his face and destroying his ability to speak. The VA diagnosed dementia praecox, and in the early 1930s, Lon began receiving total disability. Because of this particular diagnosis, the money was sent directly to his family, who probably got a retroactive, lump-sum payment and then a regular monthly installment. The new income was fine, but it was a steady reminder that Hank, like Lon himself, would grow up practically fatherless.
Lillie managed fairly well without her husband. When their place in Georgiana burned down, she was quick to find another house, this one on Rose Street and large enough for her to inaugurate her career as manager of boardinghouses. Her resourcefulness and her instinct for financial matters were not always attractive, but they kept things going. She might have found a comfortable place in a rising mercantile class had she not paused to manage a famous son. Interviews with neighbors and family produce different opinions of Lillie. Some found her honest and hardworking, if given to the dollar. Others who came to know her after Hank had established his career found her pushy and greedy. The point seems to be that early in her marriage her survival instincts were attractive. Later, as her son became better known, those same energies became less appealing as they went toward making certain that she realized every dollar possible from his life and death.
As both child and adult, Hank Williams was frail and withdrawn. Roger Williams's interviews with various relatives tell us as much:
From the start, Hank was a thin and sickly boy. His sister, Irene, describes him as "pretty frail. He was no athlete. Every time he tried sports, it seemed, he broke something." One such effort, perhaps at ice skating, resulted in a ruptured disk, contributing to back problems that were to plague him most of his adult life. A cousin who spent a great deal of time with young Hank, J. C. McNeil, remembers him as "a real loner. He never was a happy boy, in a way. He didn't laugh and carry on like other children. It seemed like somethin' was always on his mind."
A difficult life and a domineering mother explain some of this, but an additional factor was involved: Hank Williams had chronic back problems. The narcotics that he came to depend on, which probably were at least partially responsible for his death, were allowed at first because of his ailment. One story attributes the problem to an ice-skating accident, but the skates would have been as scarce as ice in Hank's world. Another, reported both by Roger Williams and Jay Caress, is that Hank ran away West at the age of seventeen, got drunk, entered a rodeo, and was thrown from a horse. Documenting this episode seems to be impossible, although the story reflects Hank's fascination with cowboys and booze. By far the best explanation of his problem lies in the symptoms of spina bifida occulta in Hank's medical reports and in his autopsy. Spina bifida occulta is a birth defect; the vertebral arches fail to unite and thus allow the spinal cord to herniate, to extend outward from the spine. The most serious version of this problem, known as spina bifida, creates a large protrusion or tumor on the back and can cause partial or complete paralysis as well as the loss of sensation and sphincter control. Hank's type was not so severe. There evidently was no external growth, but even the lesser version (the occulta) can leave a mark on the back and effect the lower extremities. The ailment is progressive and thus explains some of Hank's problems, especially his occasional paralysis, along with his trouble with sports as a child. Alcohol and drugs were the villains in the end, but only the spina bifida occulta seems to explain Hank's enduring pain.
This kind of spinal herniation makes nerves particularly vulnerable to injury. The most ordinary fall could cause real trouble, not to mention a fall from ice skates or a rodeo horse. That a variety of fails, which only aggravated his problem, got credit for the problem itself is not surprising. We might like to think that an early diagnosis and appropriate surgery could have repaired Hank's back and perhaps changed his life entirely. But such an opportunity was rare during his childhood; an open spinal column in the days before the regular use of antibiotics would have been disastrous. For Hank Williams, fate designed a time and place that admitted little relief from a serious and painful ailment. At the same time, though, that fate may have led Hank Williams to his music because his bad health kept him from some of the activities typical of boys growing up.
Not everything in Hank's early years was gloomy. Lillie provided for him well enough, and he seems to have had a particularly good year in 1934-1935, when he lived with his cousins, J. C. and Walt McNeil, near Fountain in Monroe County. He had swapped homes with their sister, Opal, who had moved into Georgiana to live with Lillie and finish high school. The McNeils lived in the Pool lumber camp, in a boxcar that had been converted into living quarters. This home was nothing unfamiliar or embarrassing because many of the company's employees lived in the cars, which could be moved easily as the camp followed timber. The benefits for Hank were several. He and the McNeil boys were good pals, which meant much to the loner, Hank Williams. The McNeils had more of a family life than Hank was used to, and by all reports they were kind to their guest. Certainly Hank did not have to hit the streets to hawk whatever goods Lillie had come up with for him to sell. But perhaps the most attractive aspect was that Hank was not socially inferior among the McNeils and their friends. Their neighbors were all alike; they worked for the same company, and the neighborhood moved as one. Here Hank was not the fatherless kid from the next town, shining shoes in the barbershop.
Hank took to the basic item on the McNeil social calendar, the Saturday night dances that the lumber camps loved. He liked the live country music and the frolicking that went with it. He was not ignorant of music at this point; his mother had been the church organist, and she had Hank on the organ bench beside her for services. But the Pool camp may have been the place where he first heard music played in the context of so much fun. The people in the logging camps knew how to have a good time, and part of their method, of course, involved strong drink.
The irony of drinking in many rural areas, especially in the South, is that most know that it goes on, but few see it happen. Drink is not so much a social matter as a preparation for social matters. It happens, and those who are courteous pretend that it does not happen. All of this means hiding the booze, drinking it in the woods or in a car, and then stashing it away to return to the party. Kids, then, have easy access to it, much easier than if the drinking were public. All that a child has to do is observe and then partake of the elixir. The eleven-year-old Hank apparently caught on to the code quickly. It is not easy to identify a particular point where his alcoholism started; the problems were probably built into him, for Hank Williams seems to have been highly susceptible to drink. Had he not gotten into it at the McNeil's, he would have gotten into it elsewhere. But he did come home from their place with some new knowledge. He must have been aware of the deficiencies in his own family life, perhaps even aware that Lillie was a little exploitative. Hank knew how much fun the music could be, and he may have associated the whiskey with the good times.
One of the best things hard times can produce is music. They generated gospel and the blues for poor blacks, and they produced country for poor whites. In fact, singers establishing themselves in these genres today, when the socioeconomic implications have faded, had still better be able to convince audiences that authentic suffering stands behind their work. Hank Williams had no trouble providing that history. He took up his trade with full and legitimate credentials. Alabama in the 1930s could produce as much music as the dust bowl, a West Virginia coal mine, a cotton field, or a New Orleans slum.
Hank was a natural, and much of his ability seemed to be innate. Maybe he inherited it from his grandfather Skipper, a blacksmith who supposedly composed some rhythmic songs for his hammering. Perhaps he got some of it from his mother, who pumped away at those four-square hymns at the Baptist Church. Certainly, he had found plenty of music among his relatives, the McNeil's, both at the lumber camp parties and at home, where Mrs. McNeil played the guitar. Hank seemed to come out of that particular year ready to make his own songs.
When Roger Williams tried to find out just who presented Hank with his first instrument, he got enough answers to confuse the issue for good. Lillie claimed credit, saying she bought Hank a $3.50 guitar, paid off at 50¢ a month, to encourage him to do better work in school. The good son Hank confirmed his mother's part later, although he mentioned nothing about school. Fred Thigpen, who ran the Ford place in Georgiana, says that he bought Hank his first guitar, a $2.50 number, from Warren's store. Others report that Jim Warren himself gave Hank the guitar. The only consistency is the chronology: Hank started picking when he was about twelve years old. Should the argument about who was responsible continue, we might note that Hank was not destined to become any great picker anyway. Basic rhythm was about all he ever managed, and even at that he was sometimes encouraged to leave his guitar at home when he came to recording sessions. Among his numerous recordings, he had only one brief guitar solo, that on "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."
Hank did get a little instruction from an old-time fiddler, Cade Durham, who ran Georgiana's shoe shop and had a string band fairly well known in those parts. No doubt, he also picked up some help from the street singers who were so common in that time and place. After all, Hank certainly moved among them on his various missions for Lillie. He probably came across a singer named Dove Hazelip and another, Connie "Big Day" McKee. But the biggest influence in this part of Hank's life was the black street singer Rule Payne, known generally as "Tee Tot." He was from Greenville, just up the L&N Railroad line, but he drifted down to hustle Georgiana occasionally.
As I have mentioned already, country singers work hard to establish authenticity. One way to do this is to claim tutelage from black street singers, perhaps the most authentic of musicians. But I think it important to note that Rule Payne was real. Colin Escott has identified him, even to the point of finding notice of his death in Montgomery Charity Hospital on 17 March 1939. Escort goes on to suggest, logically I think, that "Tee Tot" was an ironic diminutive of "Teetotaler." So again, Hank's country influences seem to be genuine.
Rufe was a beggar with talent, the kind who continued well through my own childhood in the 1940s and 1950s, although social programs and ordinances against begging finally took care of them in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them were handicapped—blind men, amputees, or winos—who tried to stop passersby long enough to perform and to collect a few coins, often in a tin cup tied to the neck of a guitar. The problem, of course, came in stopping people long enough for the show. That called for more than simple songs; it called for the showmanship that Rufe had mastered—some jokes, some shuffling, some music, and no small amount of flattery of the crowd that might well mean sustenance. Hank learned some music from Rufe, but maybe even better, he learned showmanship. The interesting point here, I believe, is that as Rufe marked some of Hank's authenticity, so would Hank himself, many years later, become the reference point for up and coming country singers. Again and again, in efforts to prove their sincerity, country singers cite Hank Williams as an inspiration.
The fate that had played some mean tricks on Hank suddenly served him well in 1935 when he, Lillie, and Irene moved up to Greenville, Rufe's hometown. Hank had almost constant access to his mentor now; he was much on the streets. Lillie was a demanding mother, and his stay with the McNeil's probably had led him to realize that life with her was not exactly cozy. Hank was twelve, into his adolescence, hard to keep up with, streetwise, and tall enough to pass for an adult. He was to spend more time with Rufe Payne.
They had much in common: music, of course, and a sense of the urgency of survival. Neither one of them really belonged to a normal social order, and neither took much to ordinary, day-to-day work. If Lillie was giving Hank a bad time, he could stay with Rule and enjoy the commiseration. Unfortunately, Rufe solaced himself with whiskey as well as with music. Thus, Hank had his second major encounter with alcohol. Rufe taught him plenty of music, and in the bargain Rufe gave him access to booze, a place to drink it, and a place to sleep it off out of the way of Lillie Williams.
Hank was now ready to travel, and once again, one of his family's many moves was to serve his purposes. On 10 July 1937, Lillie, Irene, and the fourteen-year-old Hank Williams headed for Montgomery, a hot, flat town of 75,000 people who knew plenty about country music and the home of a really good country radio station, WSFA. Lillie went straight into the boardinghouse business at 114 South Perry Street. Irene made lunches to peddle around town, and Hank was supposed to be back shining shoes and selling peanuts. Actually, he spent most of his time looking for a way to pick up where he had left off with Rufe Payne. He was ready to get off the streets and onto the stage, ready to be discovered. Hank met a young cowboy singer, Braxton Schuffert, who had his own radio show and who performed with Smith "Hezzy" Adair. Schuffert, who was to become one of Hank's most dependable friends, made Hank Williams even more anxious to be a professional performer.
He found his chance late in the fall of 1937. The Empire Theatre ran a sort of Bijou operation: full entertainment for the kids—movies of the Bomba and Tex Ritter type, serials, cartoons—and a talent show, usually dominated by spoon players, pantomimists, and yo-yo artists. Hank entered the talent show, singing his own composition, "The WPA Blues," which was obviously based on Riley Puckett's "Dissatisfied" (1930) and which went like this:
I got a home in Montgomery
A place I like to stay
But I have to work for the WPA
And I'm dissatisfied—I'm dissatisfied.
That tune never made it onto any of his records, nor does it turn up in the Hank Williams catalog. But the performance is a good place to start Hank's career because it identified what Hank was to come to do so well—sing about a tough life that he shared with his audiences. He won first prize in the talent show and left the Empire Theatre that night with $15. He must have been trying to calculate how many pairs of shoes he would have had to shine to get that kind of money. And more good news was at hand: Lillie, with her sharp eye for either talent or money, inaugurated her career as promoter of her son by giving him a new Gibson guitar as an advance on his Christmas present.
Excerpted from Hank Williams, So Lonesome by Bill Koon. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1. The Singer: A Biography||3|
|2. The Song: An Evaluation||91|
|3. The Resources||119|