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By Colin Escott
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Also by Colin Escott
Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway, with Kira Florita
Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll, with Martin Hawkins
Tattooed on Their Tongues
Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music
Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway
Copyright © 2004 by Colin Escott
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Little, Brown and Company
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First eBook Edition: April 2009
South Central Alabama
Map by Lindsay Grater
The road to that bright happy region Is narrow and twisted, they say But the broad one that leads to perdition Is posted and blazed all the way.
"The Drifting Cowboy's Dream" (unknown)
THE DRIFTING COWBOY'S DREAM
THE Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem from the east, will, according to the Book of Matthew, be the gathering place when the dead rise upon the Messiah's return. Those buried on the Mount will be the first to rise, and will have pride of place at the Messiah's side. As a child, Hank Williams would not go to sleep unless a Bible lay beside him in bed, so he inevitably learned about the Mount of Olives, but had he returned to his birthplace in Mount Olive, Alabama, he would have seen a red-dirt settlement of half a dozen houses strung desultorily along an unpaved road. Not even a crossroads. The few souls that resided there eked out a living as farmers or as indentured employees of the lumber companies opening up the dark, coniferous forests of south Alabama.
Hank was the third and last child of Elonzo "Lon" Huble Williams and his wife Jessie Lillybelle "Lilly" Skipper Williams. Their first child was alive at birth but died soon after; it's unknown if he or she was even named. Lon and Lilly's second child, Irene, was born on August 8, 1922; Hank followed on September 17, 1923. According to Lon, Hank was to be christened Hiram, after King Hiram of Tyre in the Book of Kings, but when he was belatedly registered with the Bureau of Vital Statistics at the age of ten, it was as "Hiriam." Friends, family, and neighbors called the boy "Harm" or "Skeets." He was born at home in a double-pen log house known as the Kendrick Place because it had been built in the late 1800s by Mr. Wiley Kendrick and his wife, Fanny. Lon proudly told Hank's first biographer, Roger Williams, that he paid thirty-five dollars to have a doctor in attendance, and had enough money set aside to hire a black nanny.
Lon Williams was thirty-one years old when Hank arrived. Lon was born on December 23, 1891, in Macedonia in Lowndes County, Alabama. His family came from North Carolina, and the surviving photo of his grandmother shows a woman with high Indian cheekbones and deep-set eyes. Hank always said he was part Indian, and there was probably some Creek or Cherokee on his father's side. Lon's mother, Martha Ann Autrey Williams, committed suicide when he was six. Lon would tell his children about the time he found his mother dead; sometimes he said she drank rat poison, other times he said she hanged herself. Never did he say why. His father, Irvin, moved the family to McWilliams, Alabama, a lumber company town some thirty miles from Greenville. Irvin died in 1909 when Lon was seventeen, but from the time he was twelve, Lon drifted, working as a water boy, ox driver, or anything else he could get. He grew up without a father just as Hank would, just as Hank Jr. would. Hank Jr.'s children might have wished he was around more, too.
Jessie Lillybelle Skipper was a delicate name for a woman who, had she been a canary, would have sung bass. Born in Butler County on August 12, 1898, Lilly was a large, broad-boned woman, and the one thing that everyone agrees upon is that she didn't take no crap. Quite what Lon saw in her, or she saw in Lon, is unclear; later in life, neither could mention the other's name without a curse. Lilly ruled every one of her roosts with a steely sense of purpose, hardened by having to deal with one feckless, useless man after another. She could be funny, even tender, but always formidably strong willed, and not much given to self-doubt.
The Skippers lived for a while around Chapman, Alabama, and Lon was probably working near there on a lumber train crew when he met Lilly. She was eighteen, almost a spinster, when they married on November 12, 1916. On July 9, 1918, as the First World War was drawing to a close, Lon was sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, then on to France with the 113th Regiment of Engineers, 42nd Division. Shortly after arriving, he suffered an injury, but not one sustained in combat. He later told his family that he'd fallen from a truck while hauling rocks, although others in the family heard that he'd gotten into a fight with another soldier, reportedly over a French girl. He either fell from the truck onto his head or was struck on the side of his head in the fight. He spent about a week in the base hospital before being shipped back to the front. He seemed to have recovered, but it was an injury that would come back to haunt him.
On June 26, 1919, Lon was discharged from Camp Gordon, Georgia, returned to Alabama, and began working for the lumber companies. The company crews ran narrow-gauge railroad tracks up to the logging sites, and entire families lived on-site in boxcars for weeks or months at a stretch. Lon drove the log trains, and worked, as he was fond of saying, "from can to cain't."
When Irene and Hank arrived, though, Lon and Lilly were renting the old Kendrick place for eighty dollars a year, and running a small strawberry farm with a country store on one end of their house. Then a late frost hit, probably in the spring of 1924, and Lon was forced back to work for the lumber companies. He started with Ray Lumber in Atmore, then moved to W. T. Smith. By the time Lilly finally got around to registering Hank's birth in 1934, she stated that Lon was working as an engineer for the lumber companies when Hank was born, which was a few months shy of the truth.
Hank later said that his first recollection was of living in the W. T. Smith boxcar at the McKenzie camp near Chapman. Soon after that, Lon bought a house a mile and a half out of Georgiana and worked on the Ruthven job. Then, in 1927, he sold up and bought a house and ten acres in McWilliams, continuing on the Ruthven job for W. T. Smith until 1929. It was in McWilliams that Hank attended first and second grade. McWilliams was another tiny settlement almost entirely dependent upon the lumber business. Every house, every business was built of pine, and every man worked either for the lumber companies or for a business that depended on them. The Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad opened up the town around 1900, and it was as bustling as it ever was when Lon and Lilly moved there. It was insular and self-contained in the way that communities were when the mule was more commonly seen on the roads than an automobile.
Hank was his parents' child in every respect. Whether through propinquity or some mystery of DNA, Hank had Lilly's driving ambition, but it would be repeatedly subverted by Lon's tendency to backslide. Later, when he was berated for his drinking, Hank was fond of saying, "If you think I'm a drunk, you shoulda seen my old man" (although as Hank knew well, Lon had ceased drinking by then). For her part, Lilly saw some of Lon's lack of willpower and damnable sloth in Hank and cursed them both, telling her son that he was no better than his wastrel of a father.
Writing about Hank in a notoriously unreliable memoir called Life Story of Our Hank Williams, Lilly said that he always liked to sing, but so do most children. Looking now down the wrong end of the telescope, it's hard to tell if Hank was the wunderkind in whom talent was innate, or if he simply had a bent for music that he nurtured until it became the easiest way he knew of making a living. Between Lon and Lilly there was some musical talent. Lon played the Jew's harp, and Lilly played the organ at the Mount Olive Baptist Church and at other churches they attended. Her father, John, wrote folk hymns. She sang in her strong, resonant voice, which some said could make the skin tingle on your neck. She loved to tell how Hank always sat beside her and sang too, and Hank certainly seemed to view those Sundays at his mother's side as the beginning of it all. "My earliest memory," he told journalist Ralph J. Gleason, "is sittin' on that organ stool by her and hollerin'. I must have been five, six years old, and louder 'n anybody else."
One reason that Hank might have been drawn to music is that he knew from an early age that he wasn't as physically strong as most kids, and was unsuited to logging or farming. Lon told a couple of interviewers that there was a raised spot on the boy's spine, but neither he nor Lilly understood what it was. In all likelihood, it was the first sign of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the vertebral arches of the spine fail to unite, allowing the spinal cord to herniate or protrude through the spinal column. That birth defect would determine the outcome of Hank's life every bit as much as his love of music. From the beginning, he was frail and spindly, and much as he wanted to join in sports, he lacked the physical coordination and stamina. He grew up in a community with strong shared values, chief among them pride in physical strength. His apartness stemmed in great measure from his physical affliction. One of his earliest published songs was "Back Ache Blues," and it would be the one kind of blues he knew all too well throughout his life.
In 1928 or 1929, shortly after moving back to McWilliams, Lon's face slowly became paralyzed; he couldn't blink and couldn't smile. As his condition worsened, he quit W. T. Smith to take a lighter job with Ralph Lumber in Bolling, and in September 1929, he ceased work altogether. The following January, Lilly took him to the Veterans Administration hospital in Pensacola, Florida. From there, he was transferred to the V.A. hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana. Lilly wrote later that he had been gassed and shell-shocked, but Lon told his family that he had a brain aneurysm, probably as a result of the injury in France. He stayed in Alexandria until January 1937. Hank was six when Lon left, and while Lilly was more than up to the task of raising her children by herself, Lon's absence only heightened Hank's isolation. Perhaps the most heartwrenching unpublished song in his early notebooks is one titled "I Wish I Had a Dad":
When he said, "What do you want that 'til now you haven't had?"
I said, "You was it once. Could you be again? I want a full-time Dad."
After Lon left, Lilly's brother-in-law, Walter McNeil, moved the family into Garland to live with them and Lilly's mother. Lilly then scrimped and saved enough to move her brood into Georgiana, the first town of any size Hank had ever lived in. It had been founded in 1855 by Pitts Milner, a preacher with a capitalistic streak. He got into the sawmill business and named the town Pittsville in his honor. Then his daughter, Georgiana, fell into a bog and suffocated, so he renamed the settlement in her memory. The Williamses joined fifteen hundred others in Georgiana, 30 percent of them black. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad bisected the town's stores, gins, and other businesses.
The first house Lilly, Irene, and Hank lived in was a dilapidated wooden shack on old Highway 31 (the major north-south route through the South), but it burned down a few months later. Lilly and the children ran out wearing only their nightgowns. Lilly grabbed Lon's shotgun as she was leaving. They moved back with the McNeils for a while, and then, as Irene wrote in the Washington Post, "Mother found a small house to rent near the railroad tracks, and she put Hank, me and our few belongings on a wagon and started toward that little house. On the way she stopped to mail a letter. A man walked up to her in the post office and asked if she was the lady whose house had burned. 'I am Thaddeus B. Rose,' he told her. 'I have a house you are welcome to rent free until you can get on your feet.'"
It was an imposing house, by far the finest dwelling Lilly, Irene, or Hank had ever been inside. These days, it's numbered 127 Rose Street, the street that Thaddeus B. Rose named for himself. He excavated the soil from beneath the house for another project, and ordered that the house be built on stilts, raising it six feet off the ground. Rose was one of Georgiana's grandees, a bachelor who lived away from the tracks. He later founded the Georgiana library, and local wisdom has it that he got the idea for the house on stilts from traveling in the swampland around New Orleans. A long hallway ran through the center of the house, the toilet was in an outhouse, and there was one faucet.
Lilly's possessions were few when she moved in. She stuffed feed sacks with corn shucks for beds, used apple boxes for her dresser, and cooked in the fireplace. Local families gave her what they could spare, but Lilly was determined that she would accept charity no longer than she had to. The Simses lived across the street, and Lilly gave them the impression that Lon was dead. "They had no money," said Harold Sims, who was four years older than Hank. "Most Sundays after church, my mother would ask me to take a platter of roast chicken, pork chops, rice and gravy, pie to them. They acted like they were counting on it."
Shortly after the Williamses moved into Rose's house, Lilly took on two more charges, her nieces Marie and Bernice McNeil, the daughters of her sister Annie Skipper and Annie's husband, Grover McNeil. After Annie died of typhoid fever, Grover paid for Lilly to care for Marie and Bernice, and they all became part of Hank's extended family. From time to time, Lilly looked after her mother too, all the while working as a practical nurse at what was called Tippins Hospital. The hospital was a large house that looked like a convalescent home, run by Dr. H. K. Tippins and his brother. Overnight care was offered, and Lilly was on night duty. She later prevailed upon Dr. Tippins to sign Hank's birth certificate. To supplement her income, she lobbied a local politician to collect Lon's full disability pension, and took in a couple of boarders, which gave her the idea of getting into the rooming house business.
Lilly fostered Hank's interest in singing, but she was determined that if he was to sing, it would be in praise of the Lord. She scraped together a few dollars and sent him to a shape-note singing school in Avant, near Georgiana. The hymns Hank learned there and in church every Sunday colored his approach to music as nothing else ever would. Black church music entered his life, too. "Wednesday evenings, me and Hiram would sit on a board fence around their house and listen to the Negro church," said his neighbor Harold Sims. "It was about a mile away. It was prayer meetin' night. The most beautiful music in the world. The breeze came from the south and it would undulate the sound. One minute soft, next minute loud, like it was orchestrated. One night, Hiram looked up at me and said, 'One day, I'm gonna write songs like that.'" Years later, Hank told his first wife, Audrey, that his favorite song was "Death Is Only a Dream"; its morbidity and superstition resonated within him in a way that the era's popular songs never did.
Sadly we sing and with tremulous breath
As we stand by the mystical stream,
In the valley and by the dark river of death,
And yet 'tis no more than a dream.
Much else informed Hank Williams' music, but the essence of it is there. From the holy songs, Hank learned how to express profound sentiments in words that an unlettered farmer could understand, and he came to appreciate music's spiritual component. He also loved the warm glow of recognition that the simple melodies elicited, and their effect was so profound that his own melodies would rarely be more complicated than the hymns and folk songs he heard as a child. On his radio shows later in life, he would almost always sing an old hymn, remembering every line of every verse. Hank was a believer, but not, in later life, a churchgoer. Perhaps he felt unworthy, perhaps his schedule didn't permit it, but even in beer joints he would sometimes throw everyone off guard with a hymn. Knowing himself to be a backslider, and knowing that he had been weighed in the balance and found wanting in so many ways, he seemed to find rare peace in the hymns of his childhood.
Another craft that Hank learned early in life was hawking. Lilly and Irene would roast peanuts and Hank would go out onto the streets of Georgiana and sell them. "The first day," wrote Lilly in a booklet not always given to accuracy, "he made thirty cents, and I remember how proud he was when he brought home the thirty cents' worth of stew meat, tomatoes and rice he bought with it. 'Mama,' he shouted, 'fix us some gumbo stew. We're gonna eat tonight!'" A more believable coda to the story came from Oscar Vickery, a neighbor of the Williamses after they moved to Greenville. He remembered Lilly counting the bags of peanuts before Hank left the house and counting the nickels that came back in. Even then, she didn't trust him, but even then Hank was outwitting her by taking a few peanuts from every bag and making up another bag and keeping a nickel for himself. Low cunning to get the better of a grasping woman was a skill that Hank would use the rest of his life.
At the beginning of the September 1933 school year, Hank moved to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his cousins, the McNeils. There was a high school in Georgiana, but not in Fountain, and the McNeils' daughter, Opal, was high school age. Hank was going to grammar school then, so he lived with the McNeils while Opal lived with Lilly and went to high school. For twenty-one years, Hank's uncle, Walter McNeil, was an engineer with W. T. Smith, moving the family from settlement to settlement. In Fountain, they lived in three boxcars, and Hank attended the single-room schoolhouse. His aunt Alice taught him some of the rudiments of music, and his cousin J.C. showed him what growing up in the woods was all about. "We'd fish, hunt," said J.C. "Hell, there was nothin' else to do. Every dog we'd find, we'd try and make it into a hunting dog. We hunted squirrels, rabbits." In interviews and in song, Hank would rhapsodize about rural life, but the year he spent with the McNeils was the last time he lived it. From the time he returned to Georgiana, he was a city boy, and the cities kept getting bigger.
The year with the McNeils also marked the beginning of Hank's drinking. He was eleven at the time. J.C.'s father, Walter, hid his liquor under his mattress, and Hank and J.C. would pour some out, then fill up Walter's bottle with water. Later, Hank and J.C. would watch to see where the loggers hid their hooch when they went to a social, then they'd sneak over, steal it, and make off into the woods. They'd drink, as the saying went around there, 'til they could have laid on the ground and fallen off it.
Hank returned to Georgiana in 1934. By now, he was performing on the streets and at the railroad station, taking requests and learning how to hold an audience. He pestered the town's old-time fiddlers to show him what they knew. Cade Durham was a cobbler who walked with a stick, smoking a stogie jammed into a cigar holder; Jim Warren owned a jewelry and instruments store. Both showed Hank the rudiments of hoe-down fiddling and some major chords on the guitar. Late in life, Hank would play the fiddle only when he was in his cups, but throughout his early career he was a half-proficient hoedown fiddler. Where and when he got his first guitar has long been a matter of conjecture; he could have lined a wall with all the first guitars people claimed to have given him. Talking to Ralph Gleason, though, Hank said the first one came from his mother when he was eight, which more or less backs up what Lilly always said. Several people remember him practicing under the house on Rose Street. He would sit on an old car seat, pick out his chords, and sing. Lilly, who was trying to catch some sleep above, would lean out of the window and yell, "Harm, hush up that fuss."
It was probably in Georgiana that Hank met his first acknowledged musical influence, a black street musician, Rufus Payne. Because Payne was rarely found without a home-brewed mix of alcohol and tea, Payne's nickname was "Tee-Tot," a pun on teetotaler. Details about him are not only sketchy, but contradictory as well. According to researcher Alice Harp, Rufus was born in 1884 on the Payne Plantation in Sandy Ridge, Lowndes County, Alabama. His parents had been slaves there, but they moved to New Orleans around 1890, giving Rufus a front-row seat for the birth of jazz. After his parents died, Rufus settled in Greenville, Alabama. Harp insists that Payne became a society musician, playing white functions, learning all the pop hits of the day. The musician that Hank's cousins J. C. and Walter McNeil Jr. remembered was quite different. Payne, said J. C. McNeil, lived down by the tracks in Greenville and worked part-time at Peagler's Drug Store as a cleaner and delivery person. Both McNeils remember that he had a hunched back and long arms that extended almost to his knees. "He would play the guitar and the cymbals," said Walter McNeil. "He had the cymbals tied between his legs, and he had this thing around his neck with the jazz horn, I think he called it, and the Jew's harp. And he could play all those things with the guitar and called himself a one-man band. He had a cigar box in front of him where you'd throw the money." Tee-Tot, sometimes in the company of other musicians, went out into the surrounding towns to play on the sidewalks. Although Hank probably met him on the streets of Georgiana, he later told one of his band members, Lum York, that Tee-Tot was a janitor at the school in Greenville, implying that Hank met Tee-Tot after the Williamses moved to Greenville.
A crowd of kids followed Tee-Tot around, but Hank was the only one who wanted to do more than listen. He wanted to learn. Exactly what passed between Hank Williams and Rufus Payne will never be known. If, as has often been said, Payne gave Hank lessons, it's hard to know what he imparted. Hank probably already knew most of the chords that Payne knew, so perhaps the lessons involved broader strokes. J. C. McNeil, who insisted he also took lessons from Payne, said that Payne always stressed the importance of keeping time and getting a good rhythm going. Later, one of the elements that would set Hank apart from his contemporaries was the irresistible drive to his music. He was never an accomplished guitarist, but his bands would always take their cue from his forceful rhythm guitar playing. He whanged the E chord in a way that any blues singer would recognize. Rufus Payne almost certainly taught Hank some songs, and while Hank probably forgot most of them, he never lost the lazy swing and sock rhythm. The blues feel that permeates all but the goofiest of Hank's songs is another thing that Rufus Payne probably brought out.
Lilly says she fed Payne in exchange for Hank's lessons, but memories of him are otherwise vague. Some say he played the blues alone, others say that he led a little combo that played pop songs and hokum numbers. Irene said that Payne once came to Lilly's house and told her that Hank was going to get both of them into trouble by following him around, which seems to imply that Hank was quite determined in his pursuit. "More than anything," said Walter McNeil, "I think Tee-Tot helped Hank get beyond his shyness, and helped him project himself a little, little more, 'cause Hank was a shy person really. He had to lose that somehow, and I think Tee-Tot was a big help to him in doing that."
As unfashionable as it was to acknowledge the influence of black musicians, Hank later went out of his way to give Payne full credit. "All the music training I ever had was from him," he told the Montgomery Advertiser at the time of his 1951 Homecoming. Talking to jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason the following year, he said, "I learned to play the gitar from an old colored man…. He…played in a colored street band.…I was shinin' shoes, sellin' newspapers and followin' this old Nigrah around to get him to teach me to play the guitar. I'd give him fifteen cents, or whatever I could get a hold of for the lesson." Hank acknowledged Payne again during his Greenville Homecoming and apparently searched for him, but Payne had died in a charity hospital in Montgomery on March 17, 1939. He was on relief at the time, and his trade or profession was marked "unknown" on the death certificate.
Local musicians like Payne would have made a much bigger impression on Hank when he was growing up than the stars of the day. Lilly didn't have a radio or phonograph, although Hank would try to listen to the radio at the Simses' house or in the local stores. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hank was barely influenced by country music's first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1933. Rodgers was the original kid with a guitar. Raised in Mississippi, he didn't draw on folk ballads so much as jazz, blues, Hawaiian music, and vaudeville. Like Hank, he turned to music in part because of a physical affliction. In place of Appalachian music's piety and grim resignation, Rodgers' music was populated by good-time pals one step ahead of the law, but still ready to shed a tear for mother and home. He sang with an insouciant, almost insolent drawl, and his sentimental parlor ballads were offset by rowdier songs, such as "In the Jailhouse Now," "Waiting for a Train," "Travelin' Blues," and "T for Texas." Many of the biggest country stars of the 1940s and 1950s, notably Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Snow, began as Rodgers disciples and recorded his songs. Hank was a few years younger, just nine years old when Rodgers died. Jimmie Rodgers' influence on Hank was less direct. Rodgers brought the barroom culture to country music, and inasmuch as Hank's music came from the honky-tonk, he was a Rodgers disciple. Hank learned to yodel like Rodgers, but usually did no more than break occasionally into falsetto, and he probably learned that from blues singers.
It was probably after Lilly moved to Greenville that she acquired a radio, broadening Hank's horizons. Greenville was fifteen miles further up the L&N tracks toward Montgomery and was four times bigger than Georgiana. As the seat of Butler County, the focal point of the town was the courthouse square rather than the railroad station. Lilly moved her family there in time for Hank and Irene to start school in September 1934. Several of Hank's contemporaries remember him bringing his guitar to school. He would play during the lunch break and tell people that to play and sing was his "highest ambition." The ditty he sang repeatedly was as follows:
I had an old goat
She ate tin cans
When the little goats came out
They were Ford sedans
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