Help Me Understand: Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter

Roy Orbison had a line in a song called “My Best Friend.” And in it was a line that says, “A diamond is a diamond and a stone is a stone. But man is part good and part bad.” You know, I recognize the fact that I’m part good and part bad.
-Johnny Cash, 60 Minutes interview, 1982
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me…
I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me…
-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
“Oh, who was that brave girl so sweet?”
I covered the crushed, broken body and said:
“The bad girl who lived down the street.”
-Luke the Drifter, “Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw”

Sometime in the hours between New Year’s Eve, 1952, and New Year’s Day, 1953, en route to a show in Canton, West Virginia, Hank Williams passed away in the back seat of his Cadillac, 29 years old, his body full of morphine and whiskey. His recent recording, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” endowed now for his fans with a sudden, mystical relevance, immediately went to number one on the country charts; other releases, including “Kaw-Liga” and “You’re Cheatin’ Heart,” also became major posthumous hits in the new year. Hank’s record label, MGM, followed the death of its biggest country star (the biggest country star) by quickly issuing and reissuing as much of Hank’s material as it could. One of the label’s releases in the coming months was a box-set of 78-rpm recordings by Luke the Drifter, Williams’s homily-spinning alter-ego. The new package of previously released recordings presented Hank Williams for the first time as Luke the Drifter, the two names printed side by side—though the identity of the man behind the pseudonym had never been much of a mystery, during Hank’s lifetime the Drifter records never bore the singer’s real name. In death, though, Hank and Luke were finally, formally united.

The Luke the Drifter records were, for the most part, spoken recitations, interspersed with occasional singing, featuring religious and moral themes. The alternate persona Williams created through Luke the Drifter provided an escape from, and a balance against, the image of Hank as sinner—an image hinted at by his more raucous songs, with their celebration of the honky-tonk lifestyle, and reinforced dramatically by reports of his drinking and marital infidelities, his expulsion from the Grand Ole Opry, and, finally, the circumstances of his death. In the wake of that death, the timely reminder of Hank’s work as Luke the Drifter served as a sentimental memorial and an assurance, to those fans who might have been concerned, that Hank Williams was above all a good man, a mama’s boy and a Christian, however flawed, and that, despite anything else, he had surely made it through the Pearly Gates.

It would be nothing new to point out the double personality of country music, or of American roots music in general, that Saturday-night/Sunday-morning split that allowed even as staid an outfit as the Carter Family to move back and forth from Jesus to the jailhouse without pause or apology. For much of the twentieth century, the African-American blues musician turned his or her back on the church by choosing instead to play the devil’s music, while the churchgoer likewise made a conscious decision to reject the blues outright; at the dawning of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, one of American music’s essential personalities and most divided souls, bemoaned the fact that he was dragging his audience with him to Hell—but, like a thing possessed, kept right on playing. You can’t have it both ways, the strict sin/salvation dichotomy behind the music exhorts, but our greatest performers have flamboyantly bucked such an assumption, ingrained in their upbringings but contested in their lived experience. Country music, rising from the same wellsprings as the blues and rock and roll, has likewise always saved room for its opposite impulses of downhome values and downhome revelry, even if at times that schizophrenia has been tricky for the artists or their fans to negotiate.

With the invention of Luke the Drifter, Hank Williams provided the ultimate metaphor for country music’s divided soul.

 *   *

As Luke the Drifter, Hank Williams sings and speaks religious songs and sermons you can, and possibly should, drink beer to: sadly, reverently, slowly. The Drifter recordings are the flipside to Hank’s gayer, good-timing numbers, songs like “Honky Tonk Blues” or “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”; but like so many of Hank’s secular classics—”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Take These Chains from My Heart”—the Drifter recordings carry the heavy sorrow of human endeavor and failure, the same sense of loneliness, desperation, fallibility, and rootlessness—the same sadness, in short, that Hank made almost synonymous with country music. The Drifter sides feature broken hearts, broken homes, suicidal girls, dead mothers, and weary sinners, set against country bass lines and fiddle strains reminiscent of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” An organ often underscores the midnight-radio-preacher feel of the monologues. Tunes that are not overtly religious are at least moralizing and typically heavy with sentimentality. All are spoken from a familiarity with “life’s other side,” born out of an intimacy with sin and sorrow. The Drifter himself is both an outcast and a preacher, outlaw and revelator, spinning his teary, beer-drenched philosophies from a barstool pulpit against the quiet hum of a country jukebox choir. As Luke the Drifter, Hank does not renounce the wilder side of life; he confesses it and tries, through tears, to understand it. He repents, but not with the finality which pretends that he will never do it again. The Drifter sermons are above all a grappling at understanding, at meaning, and at peace; they are a plea for both divine and human compassion.

Just a picture from life’s other side: someone has fell by the way
A life has gone out with the tide, that might have been happy some day
There’s a poor old mother at home; she’s watching and waiting alone
Just longing to hear from a loved one so dear; just a picture from life’s other side

Though he became a master of the genre, Hank did not invent the morally driven recitation record; such records were already part of a healthy country music tradition by the late ‘40s, T. Texas Tyler in particular making a name for himself in this field with his 1948 narration, “A Deck of Cards,” and later follow-ups. Hank wrote some of the Drifter songs himself, often in collaboration with songwriter/publisher/producer Fred Rose, but he drew from other sources as well for his narrations: “A Picture from Life’s Other Side,” for example, was a late nineteenth-century parlor song, recorded first in 1926 and several times since before it got to Hank and Luke. Williams had a liking for this type of song and pushed to get the records made, despite the initial reluctance of Rose and MGM.

When Hank’s recitations were first released as singles, the “Drifter” pseudonym had developed out of simple market considerations. Hank records were popular commodities, but

Hank’s name on a recitation record would cause jukebox operators to rebel. As biographer Colin Escott puts it: “Virtually all of the operators serviced bars, and the last thing they needed was for someone to punch up a Hank Williams record and get a sermon.” Hank records were meant to be played in honky-tonks; Luke records were meant to be played at home—by the so-called “take-home” crowd. Although the pseudonym didn’t, and wasn’t meant to, fool anybody about the owner of that too-familiar voice, it did allow listeners to know what they were getting into before they spun the record, and, if they liked, to keep the two spheres—honky-tonk and hearth—separate.

One metaphor country music offers for this classic separation is the brother duet, a tradition best embodied by the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira. Originally pigeon-holed as a religious act, the Louvins also proved their mettle with their many secular successes—”When I Stop Dreaming,” “The Knoxville Girl,” “Cash on the Barrelhead”—and finally managed a delicate balancing act, moving back and forth throughout their career between the non-religious and the gospel. When the Louvins had first branched away from their gospel beginnings, they risked losing their fanbase and their label, but, on the strength of the performances, they kept both while gaining also a much wider audience. The brothers continued to break up their secular work with classic gospel singles and albums. Their 1958 LP Satan is Real remains one of the Louvins’ best-known works, in part because of its cover, which pictures the white-suited Louvins singing with outstretched arms from a rocky, burning Hell; a towering plywood cutout of a buck-toothed Satan, designed by Ira himself, looms behind the brothers. Though kitschy cover art has helped the album remain a solid seller into the 21st century, a quick listen to the music inside, or to any of the brothers’ religious cuts, testifies loudly to the fact that the Louvins could sing the hell out of a sacred song.

But the personal life of the Louvins—that of Ira, anyway—was considerably less pious than the religious tracks would suggest. Biographers tend to portray the brothers as polar opposites, the embodied halves, in fact, of country schizophrenia: Charlie, the virtuous teetotaler, vs. the alcoholic and sometimes-violent Ira, notorious for drunkenly smashing his own mandolins on-stage and on one occasion shot three times in the back by his third wife (he had attempted to strangle her with a telephone cord; both survived the incident). An eerie precursor to Jerry Lee Lewis, Ira was despite his unholy reputation nothing if not God-fearing, guilt-ridden by his avoidance of an internal call to preach and tormented by his inability to do right. Fed up with his brother’s transgressions, Charlie Louvin finally quit the duo in 1963 and launched a respectable, if forgettable, solo career; Ira, along with his fourth wife, died in a car wreck two years later.

Hank Williams, meanwhile, at once country music’s damnedest sinner and holiest saint, was Charlie and Ira Louvin bound into one man, a poet of goodness and a poet of wickedness also who, in Whitman’s terms, was genuinely propelled both by evil and by reform of evil—but he created the pseudonym to keep his two halves symbolically, however superficially, separated. “Here’s one by my half brother,” he sometimes announced before doing a Luke the Drifter tune over the radio, winking obviously at Nashville’s worst-kept secret and transforming himself with the offhand quip into a one-man brother act. The line between the two personas (the Williams Brothers, if Luke had been the type for last names) was drawn, but fuzzily.

For his doppelganger, Williams chose the image of the Drifter, the classic Western hero, grounded in the still-older tradition of the wandering, sermonizing champion of the New Testament. And, like that Original Drifter, he befriended in song and sermon the “social enemies” of his own time and place—the lipsticked lady of the night, the bad girl down the street, the shame-faced dying gambler, the broken-hearted living dead, and all the other “outcast[s] whom no one will save.” Even “The Funeral,” whose grotesque representation of African Americans comes off today as more than offensive, attempts to demonstrate the humanity and power of what the Drifter calls, oblivious to the condescension beneath his good intentions, “a crushed, undying race.” One of the Drifter’s favorite themes is “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and again and again he warns against casting stones, insisting that there is another side to the story. As anyone familiar with the old westerns knows, it is a fine line that separates the lawman from the outlaw, the “good guy” from the “bad guy,” and it is the arbitrary, flimsy, even reversible nature of this line with which the Drifter is interested.

The trick of the pseudonym, of the doubling of the self, was of course an old trick in popular music, indeed in many areas of our culture. In the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard had written under, or through, a variety of pseudonyms, each of his various-named “writers” representing a different mode of belief; the use of the pseudonyms allowed Kierkegaard a distance from the often-contradictory views his writers expressed, allowing for dialogue rather than a single, overarching philosophical structure within his work. One of these fictitious authors, Anti-Climacus, was Kierkegaard’s ideal Christian, capable of voicing ideas which Kierkegaard—himself an ordinary sinner—would be unable to effectively express. Luke the Drifter serves a similar function, allowing for the expression of ideas which may have seemed at odds with the public persona of Hank as Hank, and what Williams creates through this character is indeed a kind of dialogue between his two selves. But, again, the line between Luke and Hank is blurry, and even Luke—unlike Anti-Climacus—is not a “perfect” Christian. If there is any one moral to the Luke the Drifter recordings, after all, it is that no one is perfect, that the notion of a perfect Christian itself is by definition a sham—that the best we can do is to recognize that we all are simply human, and that this shared humanity is, if we choose to recognize it, God’s greatest gift to us.

That Luke is a Drifter—like Hank, like the rest of us—is what makes his sermons work.

Hank’s Drifter is a descendent of the Biblical Job, who knows hardship, temptation, and tribulation, but retains faith in a mysterious God who must know what He’s doing, who believes with Jimmy Carter that “life is not fair” and that that knowledge makes its unfairness bearable. Neither Luke’s past nor his present are spotless, and even his future is uncertain; he is a wanderer, aimless, in the wilderness, kin to the protagonist of Charles Brown’s 1945 “Drifting Blues,” “drifting like a ship out on the sea” and crying, “I ain’t got nobody to care for me,” familiar too with the spiritual danger forewarned by Bill Monroe in his classic bluegrass exhortation, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore.” It is characteristic that in the opening line of “Men with Broken Hearts,” Luke the Drifter includes himself among the fallen: “You’ll meet many just like me,” he begins, “upon life’s busy street.”

With shoulders stooped and heads bowed low, and eyes that stare in defeat
Poor souls that live within the past, where sorrow plays all parts
For a living death is all that’s left, for men with broken hearts.

This is not the uplifting, bouncy gospel of, say, “I Saw the Light,” Williams’ best-known religious song (a song recorded under his own name, not Luke’s, and lacking the sermon that is hallmark of the Drifter recordings). But “Men with Broken Hearts” was a song Hank was proud of, his own composition, and it’s a typical expression of Luke the Drifter’s dreary brand of gospel. The narration continues, underscoring the typical judge-not theme with typical despondency:

You have no right to be the judge, to criticize and condemn
Just think, but for the grace of God, it would be you instead of him
One careless step, a thoughtless deed, and then the misery starts
And to those who weep, death comes cheap; these men with broken hearts

“Isn’t that the awfullest, morbidest song you ever heard in your life?” Hank once beamed after playing the tune for a Montgomery reporter. He played the song again, and this time remarked, more soberly: “Don’t know why I happened to of wrote that thing. Except somebody that’s fell, he’s the same man ain’t he? So how can he be such a nice guy when he’s got it and such a bad guy when he ain’t got nothin’?”

 *   *

The life of Hank Williams ended abruptly, his career at its peak. The scramble to make sense of that life—to explain it, rationalize it, deify it, or lay claim to it—began as soon as Hank’s body was cold, and for many that struggle to define Hank Williams has been waged on a moral scale: in the final judgment, the question arises, does Hank the sinner outweigh Hank the saint, or vice versa? Certainly, today, the sinner story gets more press. Hank’s own son, Hank, Jr. (who once upon a time, between 1969 and 1970, released three albums as Luke the Drifter, Jr.), has spent most of his career embracing the “rowdy” side of his father’s legacy, rationalizing in his daddy’s name that “If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition.” Indeed, this side has appealed to many of Hank’s country music inheritors, his extended, self-proclaimed “family.” A line from alt-country iconoclast Robby Fulks wryly nods to the image of Hank-as-demon, commenting on the birthday of Bloodshot Records, the Chicago home of “insurgent country,” that “somewhere down below, Ol’ Hank is sweetly smiling.” But other fans, less comfortable with the hell-raising or hell-bound legacy, have held up Hank’s religious records in defense of his wilder, destructive side; beneath the good times, the women, and the drinking, they can assure themselves, was the more profound faith of a Christian whose religion embraced above all else the ideals of Mother and of God. Luke the Drifter, they argue, pointing at “Beyond the Sunset” or “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night”: that was the real Hank Williams.

Of course, any view that ignores or underplays either side presents an inaccurate portrayal of Hank. Indeed, the very phrase “either side” already creates a false simplicity, as if the duality of the two repertoires and two names could after all represent two neatly divisible halves. Luke the Drifter may have worked as a useful marketing tool, and may help neatly personify country music’s warring impulses, but, as the Drifter himself insisted, virtue and vice are not so easily delineated.

Hank Williams is buried in Montgomery, Alabama, beneath an astro-turfed, tourist-frequented gravesite. Inscribed prominently on his tombstone are the words “Praise the Lord—I Saw the Light,” underscored with musical notes. The line is familiar to any Williams fan and is, on a tombstone, comforting—but it is somehow unsatisfying, too much of a disconnect, perhaps, or too narrow a view, and therefore rings false. (Minnie Pearl, after all, reported that towards the end of his life Hank refused to sing his beloved song with her: “There ain’t no light,” she recalls his bleak protest. “It’s all dark.”) More appropriate, if less familiar, might be a line from a Luke the Drifter record; the little girl praying in the Drifter’s “Help Me Understand” may sum up Hank’s, and our, spiritual strivings best. Bewildered by her parents’ senseless divorce, taught to feel shame at the mention of her father’s name, floundering for answers in a physical world and a spiritual world that are equally confusing, she is left only with a humble prayer:

Take me and keep me, and hold to my hand
Oh, Heavenly Father, help me understand

That, in the end, may be Hank’s—and Luke’s— most fitting, and most powerful, epitaph.

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