I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

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Hank Williams
A young Hank Williams, with
an eerily familiar guitar

Don’t fear. I’m not, really.  Lonesome, that is.  With two full days of college classes behind me, I would describe myself as far from lonesome.  It’s not easy for students to find my office tucked away up on the third floor of a rather neglected building on campus, but they still do.  Especially during the first week when there are many schedule adjustments to be made which require an adviser’s signature.

This song is on my mind because as my husband and I prepare for our next performance, I have been playing the Hank Williams’ song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” quite a bit.  It’s an easy song as far as the chords on the guitar go.  Mostly you just play E.  The hardest part is going from E to B7, one of those transitions which you just have to do over and over again in order to get right.  One of those transitions that works much better if you don’t actually look at the neck of your guitar while you do it.  You think it would…you’d think actually watching your fingers make the change would help, but it doesn’t at all.  I have to remind myself to look away, and still, I’d say at this point I only make it to a passable B7 chord about 50% of the time.

Had you asked me, say, three years ago if I would ever be playing and singing a Hank Williams song I might have laughed in your face.  No way.  Of course not.  I don’t know what in particular it was about Hank Williams that so disturbed me.  Maybe it wasn’t Hank Williams so much as his son, Hank Williams, Jr.  Maybe, in fact, it was the poster hung on the wall of a fellow college student my freshman year that featured Hank Williams, Jr. super-imposed over a Confederate flag with the words, “The South will rise again.”  That poster was rather disturbing, and somewhat confusing, to my Northern sensibilities.  Also, Hank Williams, Jr. looked like the worse kind of redneck.

I have a theory that your aversion to looking like a redneck is directly related to how closely related you are to actual rednecks.  If no one in your family is in even the slightest danger of being labeled a redneck, then what do you care?  But if you have some rednecks in your closet, it’s bound to make you a little nervous.  So, Hank Williams, Jr. made me a little nervous.  I was, after all, one of the few people on my college campus from Kentucky.  And yes, I can’t tell you how many folks pretended to be surprised that I was wearing shoes.

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” is a beautiful song, one I have enjoyed, ironically enough, since college when I heard the Cowboy Junkies sing their version of it on their album, The Trinity Sessions.  But I never knew it was a Hank Williams song.  It’s so damned poetic.  Surely it could not have been written by a redneck.

Hear the lonesome whipporwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide it’s face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The lyrics are haiku-like in their simplicity, but lyrical in their imagery–a falling star against a purple sky. In all the years of listening to the Cowboy Junkies sing this song, I don’t know if I ever actually heard the lyrics. In their version of the song, it’s less lilting country song and more bluesy dirge, but there’s no getting around the austere loveliness of these lyrics.

A different, Hank Williams, Jr.,
Confederate flag

Hank Williams the First is categorized as a country singer, but as a student of history I understand that what “country” meant when Hank Williams was performing is not the same as the stuff we call “country” today.  You could make an argument that before Elvis, everyone was country.  Hank Williams learned to play guitar from a black street performer named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a blues musician and the only person Williams ever identified as his teacher.  “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” sure sounds as much like the blues as it does like anything called “country.”

Hank Williams suffered from spina bifida as a child and battled back pain his whole life, leading to his untimely death at 29 from drugs and alcohol.  “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was inspired by his complicated relationship with his wife and manager, Audrey Sheppard.  But knowing that Williams spent a lot of time in pain and had a difficult relationship with his wife doesn’t tell the whole story, does it?  What was happening in his life when he sat down to write this song?  What was he thinking?  Was it fall, which made him think of dying leaves?  Was he in one of those Southern cities whose nighttime is populated by the sound of train whistles?  What specific moment of pain did Hank Williams transform into this beautifully simple song?

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