Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Old Hank . . .

Mine was a family of high and liberal culture. Mom joyfully read us Shakespeare and Dickens; Pop lead passionate discussions of philosophy and politics. The approved musical  genre was classical, although My Fair Lady was allowed as well as Odetta Sings Dylan and a Marian Anderson recording of spirituals. Needless to say, Hank Williams was not on our radar.

My neighbor, Helen Ferebee, however, loved country music, loved old Hank. In the summer when the windows were open, music would float over into our yard. Once, when I was visiting, Helen played me some Hank Williams songs. I can't remember which ones, but I do remember the feel and sound of them. It crawled inside me and settled down, as real experience always does.

When I went home and asked my parents about Hank Williams, I was instructed that he and his music were not much.

My mother and father both went to Columbia University, guardian of the culturally prestigious Pulitzer Prizes awarded annually in 20 categories for "distinguished" work done in the last year. As to what makes work "distinguished" that "is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board . . ."  

Last week, right along with classical composer, Jennifer Higdon and novelist Paul Harding (pretty  highfalutin company, if you ask me) Hank Williams finally got his --got a Pulitizer. Not a prize, as Williams has been dead since 1953, but a Citation, for, according to the a Pulitzer press release, “his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.” 

The Pulitzer Prize press release went on to explain that . . .
The Board, chaired by Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of the Miami Herald, made the award after a confidential survey of experts in popular music.

“The citation, above all, recognizes the lasting impact of Williams as a creative force that influenced a wide range of other musicians and performers,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “At the same time, the award highlights the Board’s desire to broaden its Music Prize and recognize the full range of musical excellence that might not have been considered in the past.
The process sounds all very proper and well-documented doesn't it? As though the Pulitzer is trying to acknowledge its historically somewhat narrow-minded view of music, without loosing its clout with people such as my mother and father.

I must say I celebrated the Pulitzer's decision. I know he's not always singing on pitch, but, for once, I didn't let that drive me away. I've been gratefully listening to Hank Williams regularly ever since I discovered the good company of small-town country music stations back in the 80's when I was freelancing. I had a pickup with a camper top, and I'd spend days out on the road looking for stories. It was lonesome at times, and, to me, Hank Williams songs were as good company as company could get. If that man knew anything, he knew life As Jim Fusilli wrote in the Wall Street Journal blog, "Speak Easy":
Though Williams was a star in his day who understood the power of image, at the core of his work was his ability to write and sing lines that resonated not only in the mind but deep in the heart of his listeners – which is why his songs so easily cross genres for other performers: His words speak of what we know to be true.
If that isn't distinguished work, worthy of a Pulitzer, I don't know what is.

Hank Williams wrote and recorded about 150 songs in his 6 year career. Here's a link to their lyrics. If you've never listened to old Hank because you think you wouldn't like anything so "country," why not download a couple of his Pulitzer Prize winning songs and give them an objective try? With as open a mind as you'd approach Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

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