Monday, October 17, 2011

Hank Williams Re-imagined

Randall Stephens

Few country music legends have cast as long a shadow as Hank Williams. Yodely vocals and mournful twangy guitars were his trademark. His songs were drenched with sadness and longing, like his rendition of "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" (1952): "I ain't
gonna worry wrinkles in my brow, cuz nothin's never gonna be alright nohow. No matter how I struggle and strive, I'll never get out of this world alive."

Williams' music influenced countless other songwriters and performers, across the spectrum. And though he's been dead for nearly 60 years, new box sets, books, and documentaries continue to pay homage to him.

Now Bob Dylan and a score of other living legends have re-imagined a collection of Hank Williams' unfinished songs. The lyrics are Williams', the music is new.

"It's hard not to feel ambivalent about The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," says Ken Tucker at NPR. "Yes, it does give us an opportunity to hear previously unreleased lyrics by one of the greatest songwriters country music has produced. But Williams didn't write the music that accompanies his words, and as sincere as these performers are, none of the words are framed the way Williams would have, had he completed the songwriting process. Would Hank, for example, have set 'The Love That Faded' to a waltz beat, as Bob Dylan has done with it?"

The Lost Notebooks raises all sorts of other questions about how we think about legendary artists, authenticity, and honoring the dead. Who owns the dead? Is an artist's legacy something sacred, to be protected? How are contemporaries in conversation with those who've gone before them?


CP Hoffman said...

You hit an important point at the end. My understanding is that the records of a great many contemporary figures have been donated to archives, libraries, etc., under extremely onerous conditions, such that it can be very difficult for legitimate scholars to gain access, at least for a few decades (the example that comes to mind is the Vladimir Nabokov papers, held by the Library of Congress, which were closed to public access for forty-two years after his death; during that time, scholars could gain access to them only with the permission of his son, Dmitri Nabokov, who denied permission to anything he thought would make his father look bad). Now, maybe that is simply the cost of having access to papers that in prior generations would have been burned upon death, but it can make things difficult for researchers of the recent past.

Randall said...

Charles: I've heard the same about the letters and papers of Ted Hughes. Very difficult to do much work on 20th century authors like that when source material is held under lock and key.