Chapter 5 in The Old Man and The Boy is titled “September Song”. In it the Boy relates his memories of surf fishing as autumn began to usher winter in off the Atlantic. The song he describes is the stuff of nature and memory. My Dad and I had a similar song, but he also taught me a more traditional approach to the muse.
We used to sit in the old, gray family Ford and listen to the radio as my Mom was doing something or other when we were out together. The station was always playing country music. Most of the “crooners” have long since slipped into his eternity and my senility. Yet, two are frozen crystals in my memory. The two Hanks, Snow and Williams forever remind me of the long road toward understanding the lessons my Dad handed me.
Hank Snow was fun. His voice and rapid tempo music is hard to forget. I’m Movin’ On always brings a smile when the radio spills those chords and words into the air. The image of a old eight-wheel steam engine driving a train at high speed reminds me of traveling with my Dad and dreams of exiting the past quickly.
In between the Hanks, Dad taught me the words to Ghost Riders In The Sky. The moment I realized the eternal ramifications of those lyrics is lost in the fog of memory, but I can still sing along when my ears hear the first notes. Over the years I have come to appreciate the evocative imagery created by Stan Jones, the songwriter. Eventually I would be drawn into the world of imagery through poetry and lyrics.
The lyrics that began to lure me across the frontiers of awareness came in a form my Dad could never appreciate: the imagine driven Bob Dylan. Yet, the trail to the borderland began deep in the work of the second Hank. The sounds of Your Cheatin’ Heart almost always brought my Dad out of his natural taciturn state. I am relatively certain that it was either the first or second song he taught me to sing. (Ghost Riders might have come first)
Growing older but less wise I spent some time distancing myself from most country music. Just as my Dad never appreciated rock and roll, I failed to appreciate Hank Williams. As Dylan wrote, “I was so much older then” until I began to delve into the depths of music’s root ball.
The reality is that I never really escaped Hank Williams’ music; I simply failed to recognize its influence. The intensely personal yet universal emotional foundation of his lyrics and his delivery were things I found appealing in Dylan’s work. His use of traditional imagery touched the historian’s nerve in my being even as I failed to make the connection. Hank’s themes were all over Dylan, but I could not “see the light.”
Eventually I became fascinated by the influences and origins of Dylan’s work. Then in the immortal words of Hank, “I saw the light.” Slotted into a biographical piece on Dylan was his statement that he believed Hank Williams to be the greatest American songwriter. Synapses fired, connections were made. Hank Williams was the great American white bluesman. He and Dylan were voicing many (but not all) of the deep seated forces confronted by the great American black blues artists.
Yes, black blues was never a form my father favored or even listened to as far as I know. That issue misses the point. My father with or without intent introduced me to a form of human expression that touches the soul and spirit at the deepest level. He and Hank taught me to hear and feel things in a manner seldom available in mere conversation.
Now as I literally enter the autumn life my Dad and Hank have paved the way for me to have my own “September Song.” They gave me the desire to find it in whatever form reached to my deepest senses. When I am “so lonesome I could cry” Dylan gives me Shelter from the Storm.” I never thought I would miss that old gray Ford.