If there is a more powerful, heartfelt tribute to fallen soldiers than Hank Williams rendition of ‘Searching for a Soldiers Grave’, I don’t what it is. As only a handful of singers in the world were able to do, Hank transforms himself into the character and emotions of the searcher.
It catches you by surprise coming part way through Disc 2 of Hank Williams the Unreleased Recordings, just half way through the whole 3 Disc Box set.
The notes by Colin Escott say the song was written by Jim Anglin but sold to Roy Acuff who gets credit, and I guess the royalties. As I recall from some of the biographies of Hank, Jim Anglin and his brother Jack Anglin of Johnny and Jack were friends of Hank and Audrey in the Shreveport days. Johnny Wright of Johnny and Jack was Kitty Wells’ husband.
This is a very well written song, structured around a quest that is very common today. People who have lost friends and relatives in war often feel the need to go to Europe, or to a National Cemetery, or perhaps a shrine like the Vietnam Memorial to pay tribute.
‘Searching for Soldier’s Grave’ of course was written about the horrible losses in the Second World War and a loved one’s journey across the ocean from America to Europe to find the grave. There is an element of suspense throughout as the listener doesn’t know if the grave will be found until near the end. It’s like a pilgrimage.
Hank seems a little unsure of the words and how they fit with the melody as he opens. Remember these recordings are first take, no do overs, and no cutting and splicing, and no overdubs.
As the story unfolds, Hank grows into the skin and becomes the person who mourns a lost loved one or friend, who died for their country, in a foreign land, many miles away.
Hank is so involved. as he often is, that he takes this song and this story and through the intensity of his vocal, his total commitment to the tragic situation, he takes it up to some universal level which applies to the lost soldiers, and the family, and friends from any war, right up until the present conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
A listener with a direct involvement hears the story he or she has already experienced, but also understands that an artist, one who may not have experienced this pain directly,can translate the experience, so all of us can experience it, if not understand it.
Here’s the chorus written by Jim Anglin:
Somewhere here among the many thousands of Americans who all died true and brave,
That’s where I know I’ll find him, resting, so I’m here, I’m searching for his grave.
‘Searching for a Soldiers Grave’ perfectly illustrates the importance of ‘The Unreleased Recordings’. The songs here, many of which Hank didn’t write, show his ability to stretch far from the tragic love stories he was so famous for.
Those of us who are just fans not experts always knew of his ability to express the joy of young love, the crazy humor in marital mishaps, and the sympathy for those less fortunate. Now we hear more: in the many hymns, the traditional folk songs like ‘On Top of Old Smokey’, standards like Cherokee Boogie and Cool Water, and sentimental Victorian laments,we hear a Hank Williams with a broader, deeper understanding.
‘Searching for a lost Soldiers’ Grave’ gives us a glimpse of Hank’s genius we have rarely heard before.