Before Hank Williams country music wasn’t so personal. It had been born out of mountain frolics and square dances, fiddle contests and medicine shows. It was meant to make people dance and flirt, to set aside their troubles for a few hours, to hock tonics and household goods. It wasn’t really about the dark nights of the soul. Certainly exceptions existed, especially in the old mountain ballads like The Blue Sky Boys eerie telling of The Banks of the Ohio, or Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s bizarre and frightening I Wish I Were A Mole In the Ground. Most of those though were hold-overs from European broadsides. Locales changed to American towns like in the Knoxville Girl, but they survived more or less in tact as song-catchers like Francis Child found. It was really the blues that the existential traditions were born from. The blues too came about largely for dancing and forgetting, but singers like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson would also go deep and weren’t satisfied to just let the revelers off with dance tunes.
Prayer of Death, Part Two, Charley Patton
Down On the Banks of the Ohio, Blue Sky Boys
I Wish I Were A Mole In the Ground, Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Knoxville Girl, Louvin Brothers
Williams, who like so many hillbilly singers grew up listening to blues singers, wrote Cold, Cold Heart in 1950 for the tumultuous love of his life Audrey. The song is simple and just plain sad. It borders on psychoanalysis as the singer fails to blame the lover for her inability to love back, but instead rests the fault on earlier heartbreaks. It ends with one of the best verses in country music:
There was a time when I believed
That you belonged to me
But now I know your heart is shackled
To a memory
The more I learn to care for you
The more we drift apart
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind
And melt your cold cold heart
Much of Williams’ achievement is due to our own muscle memory. We’ve all loved someone who still loves another, we’ve all clung to someone while being pushed away.
Williams’ biographer, Colin Escott, gets close to the truth and says the song was written after Hank had been on the road and Audrey had a secret abortion which had complications and sent her to the hospital. He brought her flowers and she called him a sonofabitch for putting her there. Now, life is a complex thing and people’s choices are their’s to make. It’s a foolish man to comment on a thing past and gone 61 years. Audrey maintained she simply had an infection and was angry because she knew Hank had been cheating on her. He had been of course. But, so had she. Complicated.
Either way today is the anniversary of the day Hank went home and wrote the song. In a 1951 interview with the Wall Street Journal he claimed he simply sat down and waited until God wrote it for him. He later said it was his favorite song. Who am I to argue with that?
It hit number 1 on the country charts in March of 1951.
Sine you most likely have heard the studio recording of Cold, Cold Heart I thought I’d give you something new. Here is Hank with the Owen Bradley Orchestra as he auditions for a show sponsored by Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix in the spring of 1952. It’s a rare recording to hear a piano behind Hank (Owen himself) and what possible could be a snare drum.
Cold, Cold Heart, Hank Williams