2 June 2019
I'm writing this essay within the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy (comprising the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai First Nations), as well as the Tsuut'ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda (including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations). The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
I dedicate this essay to the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, beloved teacher and mentor, whose class analysis was the deepest and most brilliant I have ever encountered.
I issue a content warning that child abuse is discussed throughout this essay, with specific details in the paragraph beginning with the phrase “I might lie awake the entire night.”
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/sounds too blue to fly/the midnight train is whinin low/I'm so lonesome I could cry
Whippoorwills do not live in southern Ontario, and thus my imagination had full flight. I saw a large majestic bird; I heard a sombre, resonant tone. Somewhere among the decades my imaginary whippoorwill morphed into the Lord God bird. Folks in the American South fortunate enough to view the ivory-billed woodpecker were consistently awed by its beauty and majesty, its three-foot wingspan, its black-and-white plumage with outsize bill, its distinctive language. “Lord God!” they'd exclaim, reverence spilling forth of its own accord, with that twangy Southern accent I would come to know and love.
The Lord God bird could have been the creature named in Hank's song, forced as it was to become so intimately acquainted with loneliness. A small group of men, after my own heart, stepped quietly through the Singer Tract in the early 1940s, the last remnant of Louisiana forest that provided habitat for these creatures. Naturalist Richard Pough was one of them—in 1943 he found a single female, calling repeatedly, perhaps sounding too blue to fly.1 I can imagine Pough's distress. And the distress of those who attempted to persuade Singer Sewing Machine company, “owners” of that tract of land, to revise the plan to clear-cut. “For a bird?!” And thus another species exits the planet, with no fanfare, and very few mourners at the funeral.
None of this was known to me in the small southern Ontario city where I grew up, a landscape devoid of majestic birds. The most interesting specimen I tracked was the robin. I believed the same one returned each year to the front yard. Hearing her earnest trilling marked the beginning of spring, and catching a quick glimpse of her neat nest in the birch tree pleased me. She believed she had found a safe place to nurture her blue eggs, and bring them to life. I knew differently but could not communicate that fact to her.
The dark-skinned Arab man was likely mistaken for Black. Of course there was no conversation about this, or other important topics, in the small bungalow at 975. He loved country and western music. Each time he chose consistently. My mother might pick country and western, or big band, or polka, or dreamy Bing, but he always went for the same LPs. And I, at four, at seven, at ten, at thirteen, welcomed those twangy nasal voices of the rural Deep South. Especially Hank's. His voice steadily inched its way into my heart, there to remain. From the early days I revered the accent and understood it as integral to this compelling musical experience. What a shock to discover that in the US many people regarded this regional speech—and the people from whom it emanated—as a joke, or worse. What a shock to discover my first adult southern friend had spent years diligently training that twang out of her voice, only to have it pop out at disconcerting, unplanned moments. On that particular day, she said the word, and I repeated it back, confused. “Far?” Mortified, she carefully corrected herself: “Fire.”
What a lonesome time that must have been for her. Carrying the weight of the plan to re-think and re-form the pronunciation and flavor of each word. Learning the white, region- and class-privileged standards for pronunciation and flavor, and thus learning about the politics of class and the ways they seep through in large and small manifestations. What a mournful time, tracking the tongue's history and movement extensively, expunging place and ancestors. Likely the same mournful time my grandparents' generation spent leaving not only the Arabic words behind, but the English words flavored with Arab pronunciation. Forcibly altering the mother tongue is lonesome work.
It is my favorite line of the song, and I am convinced it was Hank's. Why else would he repeat it four times, with starkness and simplicity? I'm so lonesome I could cry. What relief, what confirmation. Someone else felt the depth and weight of loneliness. Someone else lived this reality and ached with it the same way I did. Loneliness hung over me more heavily than the blue wool winter coat hanging on my seven-year-old body. Two sizes too big, but with so much wear still left in it. Two cousins and a sister wore it before me. This is one way our extended family made things work; share, save, pass on, recycle, reuse. Simple living, with a small environmental footprint, has been practiced for centuries by working-class folks the world over. One might even say perfected.
This is an archetypal, uncomplicated country and western song. Heartfelt emotion, straightforward language, simple guitar line, effective and understated back-up steel guitar and fiddle. A sparse feel throughout, with a plaintive voice. And yes, it is indeed the quintessential country western song, consisting of three chords and the truth. A beautifully clear definition that cannot be attributed to one person or community because so many folks claim it, it gets to the heart of country music (as well as the blues, and rock 'n' roll). Accessible music telling important history. Three chords and the truth. Thank you, Hank.
I've never seen a night so long/when time goes crawlin by/the moon just went behind the clouds/to hide its face and cry
I snuggled in the corner of the faded brown couch, fingers seeking out the tiny nubs of twisted material, welcoming the scratchiness that the looped threads provided, making myself as small as possible, an art I perfected early on. I wanted to know more about Hank Williams. Where did he come from? Did he ride horses? Did he clasp his guitar to his heart before playing the song? These were sidelined by the primary question: what had happened to make him so sad? I might have been only seven, but I had a clear understanding of sadness. A person can only sound that sad if they are that sad. You could pretend not to sound sad—another art I had perfected. But to sound that sad did not involve pretending. Real sadness has to do with a person, and their life, and the land.
My mother unwittingly confirmed this for me. “This is the music of the prairies,” she murmured to no one in particular, which made sense under the circumstances. The music took her back to the bereft farm in rural Saskatchewan, boldly ripped from indigenous folks and handed over to so-called settlers, who managed to devastate the land in one fell swoop. My mother doled out these details very sparingly, with very little emotion. She grew up during the Dust Bowl days, when the daily jobs of the eight girls included rolling up clean damp rags and stuffing them in windowsills in a fruitless effort to keep more dust out of the house. Setting the cups and bowls on the table upside down so dust would not invade them before the meal began. Wiping down the few pieces of furniture and the hardwood floor, and briefly enjoying the cleanliness before the dust returned. Meanwhile the five boys helped their father, using their hands to follow the patterns of rope from house to various outbuildings, so as not to get lost in the brown swirling haze that obscured the sun for days on end.
Across the country, in southern Ontario, her future husband and his four siblings were working in the same diligent and earnest ways, albeit with different tasks: keeping the homemade ice cream in stock, striking out on their own so as to bring in some small cash contribution to the household of a mother left widowed when the youngest was still a baby. A common cold can turn into bronchitis can turn into pneumonia, quick as a wink, and in the days before national healthcare, this often proved a death warrant. And then, the all-too-familiar instability of working-poor existence intensifies.
You might say she was wrong to name this the music of the Canadian prairies, you might say he was wrong to name this the music of small-town southern Ontario. And you might say they were right. Yes, country and western music is inextricably bound to the land of the southern US. But in its accurate, heartfelt, and heartbreaking depictions of the lives of poor people, in its role as social-cultural history, this music cuts a broad swath and speaks to poor people living elsewhere. Poor people are linked in mysterious ways.
He followed the same routine when coming off day shift, and before going on night shift. Take the LP out of its jacket, open the lid of the hi-fi, position the LP correctly, dust it off, set the heavy needle on top. Let the first few notes emerge, adjust the volume. Then, with an audible exhalation, settle back in the green reclining chair he had covered himself, meticulously and carefully, after discovering extra material in his brother's tidy, tiny workshop. If he has just finished the day shift, it's 4 p.m. If preparing for the night shift, it's 5:30. Whichever, whether coming or going, he is tired. The General Motors assembly line does that. The work itself is draining; then of course it involves two weeks of day shift followed by two weeks of night shift followed by two weeks of day shift. Month after month. Year after year. Decade after decade. It's an excellent way for bosses to keep workers tired and confused. I myself would discover this in due time.
Was he sleeping in the chair, or just closing his eyes? From my vantage point in the corner of the couch, I did not know. When Side One ended, down went the foot-rest, up went the body; the sounds of Side Two drifted into the small room.
A voracious reader from a young age, I learned from the back of the LP's cover that Hank Williams could not read or write music. How confusing! Had someone mistakenly typed the word “not”? Because clearly Hank did know how to write music and read it; the songs provide ample proof. Later, thanks to activism, reading, and hanging out with very smart folks, I could translate the prose differently; power gives a group the ability to define reality. Class-privileged people define song-writing abilities as intrinsically linked to paper, pen, musical notations, perhaps even a working knowledge of music theory. … Working-poor and working-class people—of whatever racial grouping—have an amazing grasp of the oral tradition, which has been serving us, and indeed all of humanity, quite well for thousands and thousands of years. We have the ability to write music in our heads and remember it and share it with people. In fact, this is how most of the world's great music has been created. And in such a fashion Hank created his music. Heard it in his own head, played it, remembered it, shared it.
An only child, Hank lived with his parents in a tiny house in a tiny Alabama town known as Mount Olive. By the age of seven the dad had drifted away; Hank started working, shining shoes and selling peanuts. In other words, he was right on track for a child born in poverty. All of this began on 17 September 1923, Hank's birthday. Two months later, an Arab-Canadian boy entered the world: 22 November 1923. Fourth of five, living with parents and siblings in a tiny apartment in small-town southern Ontario, by the age of six his dad was dead. By the age of nine or ten—“I'm not sure when I started selling newspapers,” he said with a sigh—he had begun working; in other words, he was right on track for a child born in poverty. Do you begin to see the way lives connect in the most remarkable of ways? Do you begin to see that although the white child in rural Alabama may seem far away from the Lebanese child in small-town southern Ontario, they are in fact closer than you might think?
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
Spring always made me sad. Was his winter behavior somewhat muted? Did it intensify when the warmth and green returned? It did not surprise me that Hank spoke of birds weeping. Richard Pough may have heard the mournful cry of the last Lord God Bird, and I myself have come to believe the bird was actually weeping.
Spring always made me sad. Was this, my seventh, the saddest spring of all? It does not seem too likely, given subsequent springs, and yet, for whatever reason, this one stands out. For some reason the family exited by the front door, a rare occasion. I had been monitoring the robin through the preceding weeks as she gave full attention to the four light-blue bundles of possibility in the neat nest. That morning, on the path, in full vision, lay the remnants of four smashed eggs. Someone gasped in disbelief; not me. I knew it had happened, how it had happened, and who had done it. I knew he gained pleasure from such acts of destruction. There are people who enjoy destroying birds, who enjoy destroying people, people in their own families. This is the sad truth we would all do well to grasp.
The mother robin looked devastated and I swear to this day there was a tear on her tiny face. Yes, it is possible I had simply projected my own devastation and perhaps even a tear of my own, onto this bird. If so, it was a rare occasion; I was already privy to the fact that weeping was beside the point. Decades later I would pay someone $50 an hour, a shocking sum, so that she could teach me to cry.
Do birds lose the will to live? Do children lose the will to live? How closely linked is our suffering? Does losing the will to live begin with losing the will to sleep? Somewhere in that interminable childhood, with the cruelest of acts repeated with deadly precision, I decided it would be best to remain awake through the night. Things happened in the night. Staying vigilant for the duration seemed important.
Between the blind and the bottom of the window above my bed existed a tiny gap where the night sky and a tiny band of stars sometimes appeared. The clock in the hallway ticked solemnly as the hours passed by, with a devastating slowness that never altered. Finally 11 p.m. Then an eternity later, midnight. Then 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. The door to the small room my sister and I shared was never shut. Perpetrators require access. Terrible things could happen night after night, day after day. Terrible things did happen night after night, day after day.
I might lie awake the entire night and still he arrived. I might be playing in the basement, unsuspecting, and still he arrived. I might be in the backyard, methodically digging in the sandbox, for if there was a way to dig through to China I wanted to find it, and still he arrived. It might be the head decisively grasped and then thumped almost rhythmically against the always-clean wood floor. It might be the matches, lit one after another, then laid neatly along the spine. It might be the rope, the belt, the knife. It might be the basement stairs. And always—always—the invasion of the body's innermost spaces. You might be surprised at how quietly many criminal acts can take place, especially if the victim has been properly trained.
How does one not only state the fact of loneliness but find a framework of explanation that allows the listener to feel that devastating emotion? How does one create a song that both in its musical structure—sparse, simple, beautiful—and its lyrical story—sparse, simple, beautiful—brings the listener into the experience? How important is vulnerability in this framework? Whose creative genius is recognized and whose is not?
Hank Williams and other recorded country and western musicians of his time, and the thousands of unrecorded country and western musicians of his time, gave the world a gift with their music, which contains a history of the lives of poor people in the deep southern US. Consider that each and every one of these musicians refused to believe the daily onslaught of explicit and implicit messages telling them their lives and stories were supremely unimportant. Remarkably, they resisted these oppressive messages and focused instead on the value of their communal life. Worthy enough, valuable enough, to be created, shared, remembered. And thus the country songs documenting poverty, grief, resistance, meaningful relationships, material existence, the search for beauty, spirituality, came to be.
In addition to the oppressive messages about the community's lack of worth, there is the stereotype of the working-class person as stupid, brutish, close to animals,2 of unthinking, inarticulate, uncommunicative. Contrast those stereotypes with the reality of our communication skills—which shine through clearly in country and western music. In this particular song Hank uses powerful lyrics to tell a coherent story and express a coherent emotional reality. As such, this song holds power. The political power that emerges from proving the stereotype wrong, from refusing to abide by the oppressor's version of you/your community; the spiritual power that emerges from insisting on being perceived and treated as dignified, worthy creatures of the Creator,3 however that spiritual concept might be defined or expressed.4
This is not to say that each and every country song holds to this standard. If only! Plenty of vapid, banal country songs fall into the worst of pop commercial music. But more than enough country songs adhere to the pattern of expressing meaningful social history.
Similarly, there are many examples of male country and western singers refusing to abide by the standards of toxic masculinity. Including Hank.5 In this song he claims his loneliness. He repeats the key line of the song four times, thus ensuring we grasp the enormity of the struggle with loneliness. I'm so lonesome I could cry. He claims an emotional life, which includes the possibility of weeping. He claims concern over a bird—a bird!—who sounds melancholy. This makes me think of Richard Pough; I can only speculate about his emotional life, and whether he cried when he realized he might be seeing the very last ivory-billed woodpecker alive, but the men I know who spend half their life traipsing through the woods in search of disappearing birds and disappearing tiny wildflowers tend to be as much of a sissy as I am. And the men who confirmed sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker in 2004? Finding themselves face to face with a bird they had believed to be extinct? Experiencing the joy of rebirth, in contrast to their typical grief-filled task of cataloguing the disappearances of entire species? I read the story of Bobby, a naturalist who was part of this group, who took the time to write notes detailing the miracle he had just seen, before sinking to that southern forest ground and weeping with joy.6 How thankful I am for the gender messages emanating from such men; they have given me the role models and mentors I need as I navigate my way through this world and make choices about the kind of (transgender) man I will be. A choice all men, cisgender/transgender, face, although the stark path of the gender transition does tend to highlight options and provide focus. Indeed I have chosen to be the kind of man who claims an emotional life, who claims my love for birds and other vulnerable creatures, who claims the legacy of my desperate loneliness that I now understand is not going to leave me.
The kind of man who grasps the enormity of the ripple effects from one person's particular course of action … who also grasps the reality that this story about my father and his actions, about one Arab man among millions, might be used to prop up the racism directed against Arab men.
I see you, dear reader, sitting in a cozy armchair, tracking the words on the page. Oh; wrong decade. You're staring at a screen. I have to ask: what kind of reader are you? What dots are you connecting in your mind? The dot from my father and me—the well-worn track linking Arab men with terrorism and violence? (Good job, racist system.) Or a dot to another path, one that acknowledges the widespread and vastly underreported amount of violence against children alongside the diversity of perpetrators and a refusal to tag perpetrator status on groups already marginalized by race or class? What kind of reader are you?
The silence of a fallin star/lights up a purple sky/and as I wonder where you are/I'm so lonesome I could cry
Silence can be a beautiful thing. Silence can be a terrible thing. The silence of the woods carries a particular weight and vibration that I can feel as I lightly step on the soft floor. The silence of a house carries a particular weight and vibration when a cold-eyed leader makes choices and carries out actions destined to devastate and destroy next of kin. Did Hank gaze up into the sky with the same ache that I did? I see him hunched on the pine-board back porch, looking up at that purple sky, right before the purple leaked into purply-blue and then into dark blue and finally into black. Perhaps a large bird, too far away to correctly identify, has just flown across his visual range; Hank can see the bird is some kind of crane or stork or maybe even the Lord God Bird, but that's as much as he can tell at this distance. I'll bring her a little closer to Mother Earth, close enough so that Hank identifies her correctly and utters a reverential phrase: “Lord God, Lord God Jesus. Bless you.” The words of a decent man.
Hank Williams and my dad. They grew up dirt poor. They worked from a young age because their families needed the money. They dropped out of school real young. They had a bunch of lousy jobs, because part of the working-class experience is a string of insecure lousy jobs. Then each man thought they had struck the mother lode: my dad got steady work at the factory, and the workers unionized; and he had stable decent-paying work until he retired with a pension. Hank sang on the radio and people listened and a company recorded his songs and people could buy 45s and LPs in stores.
Hank bonded with his voice, a unique experience for any working-poor man. Perhaps that is what allowed him to speak the truth of his existence in such a straightforward way. His factory-worker compatriot across the border did not. Instead, he chain-smoked in an organized fashion; savor each one slowly and reverently, remove tobacco and papers from pocket, roll the next one methodically and effectively, tuck behind left ear, there to wait in readiness for the summons whenever it might come. He sucked on that tobacco like it was his one link to life. Maybe it was.
Hank Williams died at the ridiculously young age of 29. By that time he was a hot mess; he drank a lot and had become addicted to the pain meds meant to help with an undiagnosed, serious spinal issue that had impacted him since childhood. And let's not forget what it meant for someone to go from having no money to having money, from the invisibility of working-poor existence to heightened visibility. No wonder we tend to do such a pathetic job of dealing with money and stardom when it actually happens. “What now?!” Panic and bewilderment set in. As per usual, poor Hank dealt strangely with cash and being looked at. When poor people acquire money plus star status they usually break down completely. Quelle surprise!
Hank Williams died ridiculously young, and the dark-skinned Arab man lived well into his eighth decade, my hopes and wishes notwithstanding. Hank left behind him something of value for those of us attempting to assuage our terrible loneliness and counter the lies that our community has no value. Perhaps it's the twang, the Southern poignant speech embossed on each word, that provides the finishing touch to this extraordinary cultural expression. It inched its way into my heart. I did not cry then because crying was so far beside the point. But the loneliness ate clean through me. All I could do was curl up on the scratchy brown couch and its worn places and let Hank Williams' voice pour over me.
Rediscovering the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a pamphlet published by The Nature Conservancy, no date.
I am aware that likening marginalized communities to animals is a problematic expression of oppressive ideology, as is the oppressive ideology that teaches humans we are superior to other animals and whatever we do to them is fine. At the same time I want to say that as an ecofeminist, I respect and value the creatures we share the earth with, and am happy to acknowledge my connections with them.
I'm attempting to use the most inclusive term for the Cosmic Spiritual Mystery that many people relate to; I'm also aware that for folks who do not have such a relationship, this term can be problematic.
My discussion of spirituality is related to the concept of hillbilly humanism, as defined and explained by David Fillingim, in his book Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology. I was pleased to discover this book—which came about while reading the footnotes of another important book, Nadine Hubbs' Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.
In stating this, I am not claiming Hank was a great example of a feminist man. He got it right some of the time but not all of the time. Certainly he exhibited sexist behavior and values, which was obvious to me while reading Colin Escott's Hank Williams: The Biography.
This comes from a letter written by The Nature Conservancy, 26 May 26 2005, and sent to its supporters.