(Please scroll down to Part 1 for Introduction, and longer quotes from ‘Tower of Song’ and Cohen’s comment on Hank)
As mentioned earlier famed singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen paid tribute to Hank Williams in his 1988 song called ‘Tower of Song’. Then later in 1994, Cohen expanded on his reference to Hank, to talk what he was trying to say in the song and what he saw as Hank Williams’ place in history as well as his own.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the quotation is when he says he was not employing “inverse modesty” when he said Hank was “a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.” We would normally call that “false modesty”. He means, of course, he was sincere and was not trying to reflect attention back to himself from people who would say “wink wink, nudge nudge” we know you’re trying to get us to think you are really just kidding and know you are far more important than Hank Williams.
Earlier in the quote, Cohen had placed himself and by implication Hank Williams as well, in the long tradition of songwriters, and lyric poets such as Homer, Dante, and Wordsworth. In that respect he calls himself a very minor writer compared to Hank Williams.
He doesn’t force people to compare Hank or for that matter himself to the greats of literature. He says, ” I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song,” but notes that the songs must be understood in, “his own tradition”. As for his own contribution, he says he understands, “I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.” And so it goes back to, “a hundred floors above me.”
I think this is one of the most profoundly deep, and moving tributes to Hank Williams I’ve ever read. It’s complex and sincere. It recognizes that poets from the ancients, to Country Music, to the folk/rock singer songwriters of the 60’s are part of the same tradition.
Now, I know there have been many famous singer songwriters who have talked glowingly about the work of Hank Williams and his standing in the world of songwriting. But what Cohen has done is to lift that praise to a new level bringing Hank into a new place as a part of the legitimate literary world. I’ve always thought the Leonard Cohen song and quotation were special because of his standing as both a songwriter, musician and in the literary world of poetry, novels, and serious literary discussion.
I hope you haven’t been too bored!