Sunday, April 24, 2011
What if it's really the other way around, Luke the Drifter being the real "Hank Williams" while the one singing "Jambalaya" and "Kaw-Liga" is in fact wearing the mask? From this perspective, songs such as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Lost Highway" represent moments when the mask slips, when the real "Hank Williams" reveals himself, especially so since he is singing for a community to which he could never belong. As Greil Marcus observes, "Beneath the surface of his forced smiles and his light, easy sound, Hank Williams was kin to Robert Johnson in a way that the new black singers of his day were not" (Mystery Train, Third Revised Edition, p. 131). The Luke the Drifter records only make sense considered as an aggregate rather than individually; the mistake is to single out any particular one as "typical." It is true that the songs are moralistic in a way easily assimilable to the community, but that's beside the point. They are actually songs of loss, exclusion, and tragedy bordering on the nihilistic (hence Marcus's allusion to Robert Johnson), songs about abject figures who've inherited life's accursed share, too different or too grotesque or too scorned to fit in. "Drifter" is simply another name for someone without a home, without a community, and that is what the songs are about. (In the 1970s "drifter" was replaced by "outlaw," a key figure being Hank Williams, Jr.). "Hank Williams was a poet of limits, fear, and failure," writes Greil Marcus in Mystery Train (131), an important aspect of the country world to be sure. By the time of Hank Williams' death, though, the style had become so pervasive "that it had closed off the possibilities of breaking loose." The other side of the country world, the one consisting of "excitement, rage, fantasy, delight," emerged soon after in the music of Elvis Presley -- in the music known as "rockabilly" rather than "hillbilly."