“I love how Louisiana artists yell out food names when they run out of lyrics.” -Elizabeth McClanahan, Senior at Loyola University, majoring in Music Industry Studies-
I intended this Jazz Fest post for weeks, focused on Hank Williams. My husband and I trekked through rural Alabama last month, the Hank Williams Trail, with stops in Montgomery and Georgiana, visiting his homes, towns, and lingering old-timers.
We photographed walls of hit records, 4-sided guitars, railroad tracks, and cemeteries, retracing the short life of a country music legend, a man who questioned his own country-western label, because he hailed from Alabama, not Texas, not even the West.
Hank Williams (1923-1953) is an easy choice for me. George Rodrigue listens to his music in his studio, alternating with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. As with his 1971 portrait of Cajun accordion player Iry LeJeune, George painted Hank not as a commission, but for himself, recording a slice of Louisiana history, specifically the Hadacol Caravan, the Louisiana Hayride, and "Jambalaya."
Hank Williams performed with Dudley LeBlanc’s Hadacol Caravan in 1950 and 1951 in one of America’s last traveling medicine shows. He joined performers such as Judy Garland, Bob Hope, and Minnie Pearl, traveling on a train through small towns as a promotion for LeBlanc’s so-called elixir.
George Rodrigue remembers watching the Hadacol parade on Main Street in New Iberia:
“It was like the Macy’s Day Parade, but with old beat up balloons. The entertainers came by train and performed at the New Iberia High Football Stadium on Center Street. It was 1952, and I needed a box top to see the show. I was eight years old, but I still remember where I sat.”
When researching the painting, someone told George that Hank joined the Caravan in Lafayette, parking his Cadillac at the Hadacol plant. After disbanding in Dallas, he hitchhiked back to Lafayette to pick up his car. Loretta, our guide at Hank’s boyhood home, added to the story:
“One time Dudley LeBlanc gave Hank a Shetland pony. He took out the backseat of his Cadillac and drove the pony back to Nashville as a gift for Hank Jr.”
According to George, it was the song, not the man, which inspired his painting. He wanted to record a slice of Louisiana country music more than the country music star, relating the words of the song to the Hadacol Caravan, something he recalled from his childhood.
Yet the origins of Hank’s most famous song are controversial. Unquestionably, Hank Williams wrote music, however there is recent doubt concerning "Jambalaya." As we turned west at Mobile a few weeks ago, heading home to New Orleans, we listened to our favorite radio show, Bill Mack* on Willie’s Place. The discussion centered on "Jambalaya" and a songwriter named Moon Mullican, rumored to have penned the tune.
Mullican (1909-1967), as the story goes, fought with his record label, King Records, and gave Hank the song to record as his own, paying Mullican on the side. We may never know the complete truth, but after reading similar eyewitness accounts in Williams’ biography, it does seem possible.
Mullican grew up in east Texas and claimed close Louisiana and especially Cajun ties. Former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis (of “You Are My Sunshine” fame) hired Moon, who organized Davis’s campaign entertainment. The quick-tongued, clever lyricist combined colloquialisms with an animated piano style, influencing not only Hank Williams, but also Jerry Lee Lewis, who said of Moon,
“Check his track record. It stands for itself!”
(below, great fun with Mullican’s "Jole Blon"; for history and paintings related to the original "Jolie Blonde" visit here)
Hank’s biography spews disillusionment, and it reminds me that we need heroes of all kinds, even if it means romanticizing the life of someone who by many accounts was an unprofessional, plagiarizing, womanizing, racist drunk. Even as I read and researched, I qualified his history:
Well, I told myself, Johnny Cash was once a wreck too. But he had a lifetime to get his act together. Hank died at twenty-nine and never had the chance.
His agent and mentor, Roy Acuff, warned him,
“You’ve got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain.”
Kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry after missed performances and public drunkenness, Hank Williams returned to the Louisiana Hayride, aired nationwide out of Shreveport by KWKH radio, where he performed some of his most famous hits during the last months of his life, including “Take These Chains From My Heart and Set Me Free” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
It was the Hayride that made Hank famous, recorded on a clear channel, just like New Orleans’ WWL radio recorded from the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Strapped for money in 1952, Hank Williams sold tickets to his wedding, two sold-out performances at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, featuring Tommy Hill, Vin Bruce, Jimmy Swan, and other Louisiana Hayride entertainers.
Ten weeks later the country legend died in the back of his Cadillac, his body still young, but fragile and damaged. For most folks Hank Williams is the greatest country music star of all times, recording thirty-five singles in the top ten Billboard Charts before his twenty-ninth birthday. It’s easy to write off his abusive and self-destructive ways as the results of back pain, poverty and early fame. It’s even easier and, to my mind, preferable, to focus on the music and a singing 'hero,' ignoring the trainwreck all together.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
For a related post, including an account of a near death experience in a Georgiana, Alabama Graveyard, see the post “Distinguished Eagle”
*Bill Mack recently hosted his last show for “Willie’s Place” on Sirius Radio; I recall one of many cross-country drives, entertained by his program and the road, here-
-Phil Davies for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame 1999
-*Colin Escott, Hank Williams The Biography, Hachette Book Group, New York 2004
-Brian Turpen and Gentry, Robert Hank Williams & Billie Jean Jones: A Country Music Wedding Extravaganza, Old Paths, New Dreams Publishing, Many, LA 2010