Today’s Free Ride blog honors the late Hank Williams, who would have turned 87 today. One of the great voices as well as songwriters of country music, he carved out quite a legacy in his 29 short years, charting 11 number one hits between 1948 and 1953. Cheatin’ hearts and good lookin’ cookin’ and son of a gun fun on the bayou are the stuff of our collective soundtrack. When it comes to musing on lyrics of freedom, you’d be hard-pressed to find a song any better than Cold, Cold Heart for a source of inspiration.
While it’s doubtful Hank intended it so, these lyrics could be the veritable theme song for the field of psychoanalysis, as therapists work day in and day out to free people’s minds and hearts from the shackles of painful memories. Post-traumatic stress disorders affect more and more people in our traumatized world, creating memories and leaving minds plagued with doubts and hearts frozen out of relationships. War, torture, extreme poverty, sexual abuse, all leave scarred memories that can make it extremely difficult for some people to enjoy a trusting, tender relationship, long after the traumatic event has gone. I wonder what kind of songs Hank would have written had he gotten to know some of the Lost Boys of Sudan or other war refugees, or if he had gone to Haiti after the quake, or if he had read the news of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. The miracle of so many of these stories is just how resilient the human spirit is, and while tragic memories certainly shackle and place doubts in the minds of many victims, their hearts are often anything but cold. It’s a complicated freedom, to be sure, but some people do find a way to live free of their memories.
Psychotherapists are not the only ones to have “covered” Hank’s great hit song. Mitch Miller introduced Cold, Cold Heart to a young waiter from Queens, who covered it with a light orchestral backing, and the fledgling star Tony Bennett had one of his first big hits. Add to that covers by Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, Roy Orbison, and Nat King Cole, and you can see the wide appeal of Hank’s gift. A couple of covers really stand out for me. Hearing Norah Jones at the piano, understating both keyboard and voice, will make you think that the song was surely written in some smoky jazz lounge, filled with a roomful of shackled, doubting, heartbroken people chilled by the failures of romance. Her breathy voice is about as far from the Green Acres Mr. Haney-like yodling of Hank as you can get.
But my favorite cover comes from the recording session billed as a “Meeting of the Masters: Joe Pass and Roy Clark Play Hank Williams.” I grew up watching Hee Haw, always mesmerized by Roy Clark’s heavy vibrato-laden pickin’ next to Buck Owens’ toothy grinnin’. Later, in high school, I became immersed in the world of jazz, and Joe Pass was the man. He interpreted the standards as well as bebop and blues like no other, voicing chords and playing chops that left everybody else in the dust. What was so great about discovering this 1993 recording was finding out that Joe Pass, the coolest of cool New York City virtuosos, had actually been a fan of Hee Haw, and that Roy Clark, the cornball humorist and country picker from Oklahoma, actually claimed Joe Pass as his musical idol. The cultural gap that otherwise would have kept them so far apart was somehow bridged, and the result was a dream, no doubt about it. It’s the kind of crazy connection that warms my heart.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.