Hank Williams and the Elusive Redneck

A review of George William Koon, Hank Williams: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, 1983.

Like it or not, the most lasting symbol of the South is the Redneck. My eight-year-old son thinks General Lee is a car; many of my students don’t know in what century the War Between the States was fought, although they are quick to tell me that it was fought to free the slaves. Mention industrialization, tariffs, or States rights, and their faces go blank. God only knows what Yankees think. They used to insist that the South should forget the past and rejoin the Union. Now that the South is doing just that, they are howling for congressional action to stop the downward flow of industry and technology. For a while the term Dixie conjured up the image of a poor suffering black, but now that a few federal judges have ordered busing and enforced affirmative action guidelines North of the Mason-Dixon line, Northerners are be­coming more balanced in their attitude toward the South.

But the Redneck endures. From Longstreet’s rogues and conmen and roughnecks and Twain’s rapscallions to Faulkner’s Snopses and Huey Long’s woolhats and Al Capp’s bumpkins and O’Connor’s fiercely realistic up­dating of Huck Finn, the Redneck remains the salt of the Southern earth, a race apart, whether he works in the carpet mills in Dalton, Georgia, or in the automobile factories in Detroit or in the aircraft plants on the West Coast. He is the only ethnic group the national media can ridicule with impunity. When his good old boy side is caricatured, he emerges as a lovable creature in Dogpatches and Hazards, wonderfully free of blacks, knife fights, and vicious drunks; when his violent side is caricatured, he becomes the murderous villain who slaughtered that doped-up free spirit, the easy rider. Attempts in popular art to bring the many sides of his character into harmony have mostly failed. “Bonnie and Clyde” came close but finally collapsed into a Freudian cliche; and “In the Heat of the Night” still stands a monument to the naivete of the sixties: the wicked sheriff converted to Middle America’s dream of sweet reason.

These thoughts were occasioned by William Koon’s splendid study of Hank Williams, who was and remains, despite all attempts to polish him up, the quintessential Redneck. This book should serve as a model for future studies of popular culture; the style is clean and direct, the thought balanced and the judgments sane. Koon neither overestimates nor underestimates the significance of his subject; and most important, he concentrates on the interaction between the entertainer and his environment, which is what any study of popular culture should be about. But he resists the environmentalist’s temptation to treat Williams as simply a product of his time and place.

Koon’s task was a difficult one: to retrieve the actual man from the myths that have grown up around him. Surprisingly, he succeeds. I say surprisingly because when academics try to write about popular culture they almost invariably become either pretentious (“Marilyn Monroe emerges a symbol of the viciousness of American society”) or condescending (“Bessie Smith never really understood the forces that were working for her destruction”). Koon, in avoiding both extremes, leaves us with a richly ambiguous hero.

The brief life of Williams, which opens the book, is deceptively simple and straightforward. According to fellow musicians, who are interviewed later, Williams never made much of his background, and Koon avoids sensationalizing it. Williams’ upbringing in South Alabama, which the Depression hit long before the thirties, was pathetically typical. His family was dirt poor, his health was bad from birth (he was born with spina bifida occulta), he received practically no education. By the time he was in his early teens, he was already on the road, performing in roadhouses where they strung chicken wire between the performers and the audience.

A Southerner himself, Koon understands the essence of the Redneck: he is a man between a farmer without a farm, a family man without a stable family, a religious man without a religion; he alternates between an enthusiasm for the land, for mother and father, for God and a hardheaded commitment to life as it is. His life is one of constant tension: sex, drunkenness, and violence contend with love, hard work and passion. His fundamentalist faith and his own experience convince him that he lives in a fallen world, but because he is denied a sacramental vision of reality, he can never reach an accommodation with that world. He is almost never a protester because for him there is nothing to protest against. Governments, economic systems, social conventions come and go; the only reality is the individual struggling with a God who demands more than the individual can ever give.

Naturally the Redneck is a fearful creature in American society. By turns volatile and morose, sentimental and cruel, easy going and violent, teetotaler and drunkard, village atheist and fanatic, he would be a fearful creature in any society but he is especially menacing to one that seeks salvation in a social order utterly divorced from any transcendent reality. Consequently, Hank Williams, because of this genius, has had to be mythologized both by the Grand Old Opry establishment, which has sought to deny the dark side of his life, and by the media establishment, which has sought to turn him into a pure product of his background. That Williams’ career was so short (he died when he was 29) aids both sets of mythologizers. Also, as Koon makes clear, his Nashville years are difficult to document and the few facts support both views: a good old boy shooting rabbits on his Nashville estate and a man made increasingly bitter and cynical by the cruel road schedule that went with fame in those days.

Which brings us to the music. And here Koon’s analysis is as good as his biography. In fact, the two are closely related because, as Koon says, “… hard country is democratic; its performers do seem to be speaking to their equals of real and often shared experience.” And he goes on to speak of the audience’s “demand for the connection between life and art.” If the life of the Redneck is one of opposites, then we should expect the music to be filled with them as well. Thus Williams goes easily from gospel songs to songs about the wild side of life. But the songs that stand between the two—”Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” “Be Careful of Stones that “You Throw,” etc.—state overtly the strong moral current that flows through hard country. Koon is excellent in showing how Williams derives from a tradition that doesn’t celebrate drinking and gambling and adultery; it sees them as inevitable realities. What informs the best hard country music is not sentimentality (the major weakness of most popular art) or hypocrisy (though contemporary American culture tends to view any expression of guilt as hypocritical) but rather melancholy: a plaintive acceptance of human frailty devoid of any affirmation of immorality. In short, hard country-like all folk art—is reactionary in its morality. It seeks the status quo and often lapses into nostalgia.

Hard country may have been the last remnant of real folk music in America. Beginning with the twenties, the radio carried the music to an illiterate audience which imitated it over and over again in rural communities throughout the South. Most hard country singers could not even get their music copyrighted until after World War II, and Koon emphasizes that while Williams was undoubtedly a musical genius, like all other geniuses he was by no leans a pure original. He was an almost illiterate imitator who welded lyric, melody, and performance into an art that was paradoxically typical and unique.

Lyric, melody and performance—the three elements of all song, are popular or art. For awhile academics who compiled freshman English textbooks and were trying desperately to make them “relevant,” included lyrics of Beatles’ songs (and Dylan and Cohen) and never seemed to notice how sophomoric songs like “Eleanor Rigby” become on the printed page. For purposes of analysis Koon divides Williams’ music into sections called “Writing Life,” “The Lover,” and “Sin and Salvation,” ‘but he contends (correctly, I think) that Williams succeeded both as Honky Tonk Man and as Luke the Drifter because of the felt quality of his music, a brilliance in performance that, all agree, he possessed. Williams succeeded for another reason as well: his voice was capable of converting the grimness of hard country—best characterized by the original Carter Family—into something other than a simple acceptance of harsh reality. In “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” he manages to suggest that suicidal girls are only one side of reality while “Hey, Good Lookin'” achieves an innocence somehow perfectly compatible with drunken revelry. Williams’ voice, as it comes through on he records, manages to project what, according to those who saw him perform, his performances projected: an undefeated victim both of the world around him and of his own sins and weaknesses.

But finally song, like all art and like life, is a mystery and Koon never loses sight of the mystery. Hank Williams may have been the last great singer in that folk tradition called hard country. Certainly the end of his life suggests a man hopelessly caught in the dream of a world that no longer existed. He tried to see his national fame as merely an exaggeration of his intensely personal one night stands. He took his pleasure from performance, from drunken fellowship and from his childlike passionate attachment to women. One of his fellow musicians remarked, “His childhood may have been hard, but he did not resent it. In fact, he may have had problems because he wanted to hold on to that part of his life, to continue being a good old Alabama boy.” The statement is, I think, only partly true in that it attributes to Williams a degree of self-consciousness he probably never possessed.

Hank Williams was a Redneck to the end of his life. But what that means is that, far from being too simple to contend with fame, he was in fact too complex to find security in worldly success.

The Rednecks are with us always. You can see them any Saturday night here in Athens, Georgia, whooping it up in the Armadillo Palace, as simple and as incomprehensible as Williams himself. What they do and what they sing are straightforward enough; what they are is a mystery. Koon as usual puts it best: “Hank will elude us for a long time, perhaps for good.”

This essay was originally printed in Southern Partisan magazine in 1983.

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