Creative writers need editors. Every novelist, poet, filmmaker and yes songwriter needs somebody to take a second look at his work which is often composed in a creative rush of inspiration. If we saw the original submissions of famous novels, the raw footage of classic movies, and original drafts of classic poetry and plays, we wouldn’t recognize many of them. Editors cut stuff, move things around, make suggestions, even make changes and additions. That is just how the artistic world works. And Hank Williams as Fred Rose knew was a great artist but he needed a great Editor.
As Beecher O’Quinn points out in the newsletter I wrote about in the last post, Rose had a reputation as a song writer on his own merits. O’Quinn recounts how hard Rose worked on his music, took it seriously, and went over songs over and over again. He also says Rose had a policy of not taking credit unless he wrote 80% of a song. But I think a major point is that Rose was willing to take credit when he thought he deserved it. The opposite must be true: He would not take credit is he didn’t deserve it.
Every one of the Hank Williams biographies talks about how Hank and Fred Rose would meet to go over songs. In some case Rose took a credit. In most he did not. The reason he did not is that he was a very honest man who says his role as an editor for a very gifted young artist.
I think sometimes that Hank Williams was ALWAYs young. He was a genius and a creative dynamo with an original lyric. But he was not well educated as a musician or a writer. But the help he got is similar to dozens of famous writers you could name. He needed guidance. Rose obviously saw the youth, the spark, the enthusiasm, the creative originality.
The article by Dave Hickey in the ‘New Literary History of America’ called ‘The Song in Country Music’ is about Hank Williams’ craftsmanship. This was obviously the trait that Rose saw which reminded him of himself. The Hickey article works on the theme that Hank Williams’ lyrics were sung over and over again and that poetic devices around the use of internal rhymes and vowel repetitions came from Hank’s going over and over them as a singer. None of this work by Hank alone can be laid at the feet of Fred Rose, but he sure knew what it was when he saw it.
I wonder if Hank’s creative spark perhaps inspired Rose as much as the influence was the other way around. An up tempo Rose song like ‘Settin the Woods on Fire’ has a Hank Williams style. A ballad like ‘Take These Chains’ also has hints of Hank.
Looking at his whole output I think it’s fair to say Rose was, well let’s say it directly, “He was no Hank Williams!!”
One of his most famous compositions ‘Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain’ is overwritten, and overwrought, and it’s grossly overly sentimental. It resembles some of Hank’s weaker efforts, and comes nowhere near the spare, haunting, coldly original language we find in the best of Hank Williams. ‘Take These Chains’ is similar; great, but not Hank.
Hank Williams had a direct, burning way with words, a power over language that seared the soul. He had directness and a clean clear sparseness and poetic originality in his writing: “a picture from the past came slowly stealing”, “but now I know your heart is shackled to a memory.”
So I’m saying Fred Rose was very important. I can imagine the truth in a story I’ve read that says he suggested a change from “I Lose Again” to “You Win Again” in that famous song. Definitely possible and credible. That’s what editors do. But in his own country music writing there is an element of consciously composing what he knows will fit in the picture or the genre of country melody and language, but which lacks something of the absolute directness and honesty of real country.
In short, can anyone imagine Fred Rose writing ‘Hey Good Lookin’? No. Case closed.
As regular reader’s of this blog may remember I wrote an article devoted to praising the Fred Rose and Maurice Murray composition ‘Crazy Heart’ which recently was used as the title of a country music movie. So my admiration for Rose is already on the record. Here is my post on ‘Crazy Heart’. To me that song’s forceful rhythm building on Hank’s early ‘Move it on Over’ really helped establish Hank’s claim to be an early innovator in the road to rock and roll.
This is not to say ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ is not an all time great of country music as are other Rose compositions. But despite how closely they worked together, I see a very clear difference between the works of Fred Rose and those of Hank Williams.
Finally, I want to direct you to some information about Fred Rose and Hank Williams on the Hank Williams Appreciation Society website.