Hank Williams: The Funeral (1952)

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Hank Williams: The Funeral (1952)

The great country singer Hank Williams died a rock'n'roll death, in the back of a car from a heart attack brought on by too much booze and too many pills somewhere between gigs. They don't write endings much better than that.

Unfortunately as with most such deaths, it came far to early. He was only 29.

Williams' music provided a cornerstone for country music in his barndance songs (Hey Good Lookin') and his songs of heartbreak (Your Cheatin' Heart), the latter of emotional power even today.

Williams was also a man with a sense of humour, as witnessed by his introductions of his band ("he's a good boy, everything he steals he mails off to his mama") and joke telling ("we left the United States and went to Arkansas for a few dates") which really touched his audiences, as heard on a recently released album The Lost Concerts. They are the only live stage recordings of Williams.

These shows from '52, the first recorded in a theatre in Niagara Falls and another at an outdoor stage at Sunset Park, Pennsylvania (the latter very poor quality) find him telling yarns and knocking out his hits (Hey Good Lookin', Cold Cold Heart, Jambalaya, I Saw the Light).

And also performing this song which was originally a poem by W. Carleton and which dates back to 1909: "One of the prettiest poems I've ever heard in my life" said Hank.

By current standards it is maudlin and sentimental but we need to put it back into it period. In the time it was written and during the decade prior to this recording, child mortality rates in the United States were extremely high. 

Even in 1950 they were five times higher than they are today, and black children were dying at about one and a half times the rate for white kids. Deaths in the Southern states were twice that of in the North.

So for Hank Williams -- and for his audience -- dead children were commonplace.

To sing about the funeral of one would doubtless have touched hearts and familiar sentiments in his audience. Williams himself was lucky to survive childhood -- one sibling died shortly after birth -- as he had undiagnosed spina bifida.

So in an age where carrying your dead child to a church wasn't uncommon, The Funeral meant something different than it does now.

Fewer than eight months later, Hank was in his own coffin. 

For more oddities, one-offs or songs with an interesting backstory check the massive back-catalogue at From the Vaults.

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