This claim may seem audacious to some, but might be more acceptable if the claim was “most important rock lyric of all time”, or “most influential rock lyric of all time.”
Certainly people who are familiar with the work of Hank Williams will soon guess the lyric I’m referring to. The song ‘Hey Good Lookin’ was recorded in 1951. Every word in the song links directly forward to the musical form that would break on to the world’s consciousness in 1954, 1955, and 1956.
But the portion of the lyric that embodies the spirit, attitude, and style of Rock and Roll comes here:
I got a hot rod Ford
And a two dollar bill
And I know a spot
Right over the hill.
There’s soda pop
And the dancin’s free
If you want to have fun
Come along with me.
Everything that rock and roll became, aside from the protest phase, is right there.
This is youth culture. This is mobility. This is freedom. This is rebellion. This fun for its own sake pure and simple. Its soda pop not beer. The dancin’s free. There’s escape. But at the same time innocence, youthfull exuberance and and joy.
All of these elements were captured and expanded by artists in just a few years down the road. Listen and remember: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard.
Of course many other commentators including Colin Escot in his biography and in various liner notes have mentioned the pure rock nature of ‘Hey Good Lookin’. In the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame article on Hank who was admitted in the 1987, several artists are mentioned as having:
adapted elements of Williams’ persona, especially the aura of emotional forthrightness and bruised idealism communicated in his songs. Some of Williams’ more upbeat country and blues-flavored numbers, on the other hand, anticipated the playful abandon of rockabilly.
For some reason the Rock Hall doesn’t mention Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry two of rock’s most important innovators. In a later post, I will take a look at some of their lyrics and styles and how they lead back to to Hank’s work even if only subconsciously.
Its interesting that Elvis Presley did not grab on to this type of song in the music he chose to record and unlike Holly and Berry did not write his own material. To his immense credit he mined the rich veins of black R and B, Blues, and Gospel. That music was important to Hank ,but not at the very centre of his contributions to the history of rock and roll.
The rock and roll spirit in Hank Williams is also found in many songs other than ‘Hey Good Lookin’.
One lyric I like comes from ‘Mind Your Own Business’ from 1949:
I got a little girl
who wears her hair up high
The boys all whistle
When she walks by.
This little snipet is pure genius. It says teenager in every precious word. It’s simple, not the complex painful look into depth of despair of a Cold Cold Heart. Pure fun and teenage pride of first love.
Back to ‘Hey Good Lookin’ where in the last verse Hank introduces the quintesential mid 50’s teen idea of going steady:
Im free and ready,
So we can go steady,
How’s about saving
All your time for me?
No more looking
In know I’ve been tookin,
How’s about keepin
(I think the power of Hank Williams language and rhythm is better conveyed by keeping the lines short in setting the lyrics on the page.)
A reminder that I am reviewing some of the lyrics of famous Hank Williams’ songs that seem to point ahead to the spirit of rock and roll as represented by so many rockers including Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and many others through the years.
There was something in rock and roll that reflected the urbanization of American life, both the excitement and fear:
We’re going to the city
To the city fair.
If you go to the city
Then you will find me there.
And we’ll go Honky Tonkin
Honky Tonkin round this town.
Of course we know that Hank Williams was troubled by modernization:”We took the night life off the streets and brought into our own homes”, he said.
In ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ he serves up a line reminiscent of Chuck Berry to come.
Went out last night,
I wore out my shoes,
Woke up this morning,
Wishing I could lose,
Those jumping honky tonk blues.
I’m gonna tuck my worries
Underneath my arm,
And scat right back
To my pappy’s farm,
And lose the honky tonk blues.
One of Hank’s greatest songs in my opinion is ‘Baby We’re Really in Love’. This song rocks both lyrically and musically. In this the first of four verses each one of which shows Hank’s love of the playful fun loving use of language. He even gets in a little double entendre which is one of the most persistent features of rock music. One line, two meanings, one of them a little, just a little bit off color.
If you’re lovin’ me like I’m lovin’ you
Baby, we’re really in love
If you’re happy with me like I’m happy with you
Old cupid just gave us a shove
If you’re thinkin’ of me like I’m thinkin’ of you
Then I know what you’re thinkin’ of
If you’re lovin’ me like I’m lovin’ you
Baby, we’re really in love.
“Then you know what I’m think of.” In the ‘Live at the Grand Old Opry’ album you can hear the crowd go crazy on this line as its clear that Hank has winked or wiggled or done something to get the meaning of this line across.
‘Why Don’t You Love Me?’ is another Hank Williams song that explodes with the spirit of rock and roll. Remember how it jumped out of the speakers at the end of that great motion picture, ‘The Last Picture Show’?
There are four verses and a chorus in this wonderful song about losing a lover. I could pick any verse to quote here and all would fit into my thesis. But I like this one:
Why don’t you spark me like you used to do
And say sweet nothin’s like you used to coo
I’m the same old trouble that you’ve always been through
So, why don’t you love me like you used to do.
I picked the verse with the “sweet nothins” line bacuse it reminds me of the great Brenda Lee hit from later in the 50’s decade.
All of these examples of Hank Williams writing from the late 40’s and early 50’s show that the essential elements of the coming rock and roll revolution were already rolling around in the soul and mind of Hank Williams. More than any other country star of his time, Lefty Frizzel, Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, or even Hank Snow who had rock rhythms in his style for sure , Hank Williams was thinking about changes in the air. And he got that into his music. A playfulness of language and freedom of expression which was different than the typical so called “novelty” songs of the period.
This dog house here is mighty small,
But it’s better than no house at all,
So ease it on over (move it on over)
Drag it on over (move it on over)
Move over old dog cause a new dog’s moving in.
And then the last verse of ‘Move it All Over’:
Remember pup, before you whine,
That side’s yours and this side’s mine,
So shove it on over (move it on over)
Sweep it on over (move it on over)
Move over cold dog cause a hot dog’s moving in.
There’s not much like it in all of country music. And it taught the coming generation how to write songs that were loose, and fun, and youthful, and playful, and joyful and full of life and imagination.
Songs that expressed the power of youth, the rebellions to come, the mobility, the triumph of fun over duty, life with more than drudgery, life on the road, a girl and guy, goin’ steady, the new wealth and youth culture of the 50’s. Not to say Hank Williams perceived these things consciously or intellectually. But he felt it in his bones.
I got a hot rod Ford,
And a two dollar bill,
And I know a spot,
Right over the hill.
There’s soda pop,
And the dancin’s free.