Thursday, September 22, 2022

HGB Ep. 453 - The Life and Afterlife of Hank Williams

Moment in Oddity - Frozen Ice Age Bison For Dinner?

Any time there is a discovery of an ancient preserved creature it usually garners quite a bit of interest. That was the case when a gold mining family discovered a frozen Steppe Bison in Fairbanks Alaska. The bison had been preserved in the permafrost some 50,000 years. Its carcass was covered with a blue chalky substance when it was discovered. The substance was a mineral called vivianite which turned a vibrate blue when the bisons body surface contacted the air. Paleontologist Dale Guthrie named the Steppe Bison "Blue Babe" after Paul Bunyan's blue ox named Babe. As the animal was being worked on to the preserve the hide for display purposes, Guthrie discovered that the well preserved neck meat smelled like fresh beef. Dale was a hunter and familiar with preparing and eating frozen meats. He was not fazed by the thought of eating meat that was thousands of years old so on April 6th 1984, he prepared a meal for a few select guests. Twelve people dined on Ice Age Steppe Bison stew and wine that evening. The meal was described as delicious and none of the guests were said to have suffered any ill effects. Enjoying a stew made from unusual meats may not seem strange to those with an exotic palet, but eating a stew made from meat that is 50,000 years old certainly is odd.

This Month in History - Saffron Revolution

In the month of September, on the 29th, in 2007, the Saffron Revolution came to a culmination. The Revolution was brought about by the government when they removed all fuel subsidies without any announcement and allowed the price of oil and gas to skyrocket. As we see today, the rise in cost of these fuels also drives up the prices of all commodities. Initially after this price hike, protestors began hitting the streets. However, the campaign garnered new attention when on August 28th, Buddhist monks joined the protest in the city of Sittwe (sit-way). The monks turned their alms bowls upside down, refusing to accept alms from generals. Meaning, symbolically, they were refusing to give Buddha's blessings to the generals. The Saffron Revolution was named so due to the color of the Buddhist monks' robes. That participation of the monks, in such a religiously devout nation, had great impact. Citizens who had not been brave enough to protest previously joined the monks in the tens of thousands in protests across the nation. These protests were met with violent military crackdowns resulting in deaths, hundreds of injuries and arrests. Although the Buddhist monks demands were not met at that time, the Saffron Revolution was an important movement towards a democratic government. This was achieved in 2015 with Aung San Suu Kyi’s (Ong San Sue Chee's) National League for Democracy winning general elections, becoming Myanmar’s first non-military government in 54 years. 

The Life and Afterlife of Hank Williams

Hank Williams was an American musician, songwriter and singer whose influence has touched some of the greatest singers of our time, from Elvis to Johnny Cash to The Rolling Stones. There was so much promise and talent in this young man, but it was cut short by his struggle with addictions. Perhaps it is that tragic truth that has left his spirit at unrest. Join us as we look at the life, legacy and spirit of Hank Williams.

In 2010, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded Hank Williams a posthumous special citation describing him as "a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life." There are many things about this man that we imagine most people don't know. He came from simple beginnings, in a family that knew tragedy all too well. Hank was born Hiram Williams on September 17, 1923. The accounts written on the life of Williams claim that he was named for Hiram, the King of Tyre, which was a city that was located in today's Lebanon. The Bible reveals a narrative in which this king sent building materials and men to help construct the first Hebrew temple in Jerusalem. This may be true, but the name Hiram might also be a tribute to Hiram Abiff. This is a character out of Freemasonry that is credited with being appointed by Solomon as chief architect of that temple. There are several rituals conducted by Freemasons in honor of Hiram Abiff. We're not sure if the King of Tyre and Hiram Abiff were actually the same person and have been combined into one person over the course of history, but their narratives are different leading us to think that they were different people and the King of Tyre may be the only one who was actually a real person. Irregardless, Hank's parents were Freemasons.

Jessie Lillybelle "Lillie" and Elonzo Huble "Lon" Williams were living in Mount Olive, Alabama when Hank was born. The couple had already had one son who was born in 1921 that died two days after birth and a daughter named Irene who was born in August of 1922. So they had their children back-to-back. Before the children were born, Lon worked as a railroad engineer for a lumber company and he served during World War I. During that service, he fell from a truck sustaining severe injuries to his head and collarbone. During this early part of Hank's childhood, his parents were strawberry farmers. Over time, Lon's face would become paralyzed leading Lilly to have him hospitalized for seven years in the 1930s and Hank will only see his father once during that time. These would have been his pre-teen and teen years.

On top of the pain Hank must have carried from not having his father around, he was born with spina bifida occulta, which would cause him lifelong back pain. Lillie was left to raise her children alone during the Great Depression. The family moved to Georgiana, Alabama in 1931 and the house they rented there burned down and the family lost everything. Lillie was given a second house to live in rent free by a local man and this is today the Hank Williams Boyhood Home and Museum. That house was built in 1850 and is a two-story white wood frame house with a wraparound porch and it sits on stilts. There was a wood burning stove and running water, but the family had to use an outhouse for a bathroom. Hank and his sister would help out financially by selling produce from their garden and peanuts and Hank also shined shoes. No one knows for sure who gave Hank his first guitar, but it was while living at this house when Hank was eight. Many accounts claim it was his mother and we'd like to believe that was true. 

After receiving the guitar, Hank met a local black street musician named Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, who led a band and Hank paid him for guitar lessons, in which he learned chords, chord progressions and bass turns. He then started playing on the street for tips to help support the family. Singing was natural for Hank. Even before he could talk well, at the age of three, his mother said, "He used to stand on the organ stool at Mt. Olive Baptist Church and try to sing while I played for the little congregation there." Payne was a huge influence on Hank and gave him his affinity for the blues. It was also in Georgiana where Hank would start drinking alcohol at the age of ten. This too may have been influenced by Payne who was never without his homemade mixture of alcohol and tea. The nickname Tee Tot referred to teetotaler, which Payne clearly was not. More than likely, this was tongue-in-cheek since his alcohol drink of choice was spiked tea.

In 1937, Lillie moves the family to Montgomery, Alabama and starting running a boarding house. Hank started entering talent shows in the bigger city. He won $15 for his first one with a song he wrote himself. Shortly thereafter, he made the sidewalk in front of WSFA Radio his stage and he caught the eye of producers who invited him on air occasionally. In 1940, he formed the group Drifting Cowboys. They performed in clubs and social gatherings. Hanks alcoholism picked up and he blew a lot of the earnings on alcohol. World War II started and the band broke up because everyone was drafted except Hank who was medically disqualified. Williams was fired from the WSFA radio station because he always showed up drunk. He moved to Oregon to work in the Kaiser shipyard. Eventually, he came back to Alabama to work at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile.  

Medicine shows were a thing in 1940s Alabama and Hank started performing in them. It was at one of these shows in 1943 that he met Audrey Mae Sheppard who was a married 21-year-old mother of a daughter. Sheppard told Williams that she wanted to move to Montgomery with him and they could start a band. He had her come and in December of 1944 they got married at a filling station near Andalusia, Alabama. There's was just one problem though. Alabama required a 60-day reconciliation period after a divorce and Audrey was still in that window, so the marriage was declared illegal. It eventually worked out and the couple would have a son on May 26, 1949 named Randall Hank Williams or Hank Williams Jr. Sheppard worked as Hank's manager and also sang duets with him. He began writing songs voraciously during this time and went back to having a show on WSFA Radio.

In 1946, Williams tried to get on the Grand Ole Opry and was rejected if you can imagine. Sheppard suggested they go a different route and find a music publishing company. They found success with Acuff-Rose Music and Hank was signed to a six-song contract. This led to Williams recording his first session with Sterling Records. In 1947, he hopped over to MGM Records and gets his first hit, "Move It On Over." This was a massive country hit, but also is considered an early rock and roll song. All through this, Hank continued to drink and ended up being committed to a sanitarium to get him sober. The band was tired of the drunkenness and left Williams. They weren't the only ones done. Audrey was done too and asked for a divorce. They wouldn't go through with it, but it was a sure sign of the turbulence in the relationship. Fame would come after the couple moved to Shreveport, Louisiana and Williams joined the Louisiana Hayride. In 1949, "Lovesick Blues" becomes another hit and  the Williams move to Nashville, so Hank can join The Grand Ole Opry. With this, the Drifting Cowboys were back again.

It was around this time that Hank experimented with another style that entailed Hank reciting religious-themed writings accompanied by a pipe organ. He marketed this material under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter. He did this to protect his image just in case this failed. People figured out who Luke was when he started performing these recitations at his concerts as well. "Cold, Cold Heart" becomes another hit on the country charts in 1951 and Williams ended up back in the hospital for detox. In November of that year, he made his first television appearance on The Perry Como Show where he sang "Hey Good Lookin'" with Como. That same month, Hank went hunting with his fiddler and he fell, aggravating his back issues and leading to a spinal fusion. Hank was only 27 at this time and now morphine became a problem along with the alcohol.

Hank would have another problem. Audrey was really done with the marriage this time and she told him to get out of the house. The divorce was official on May 29, 1952. Before that though, Hank had hooked up with a dancer named Bobbie Jett and she would give birth to Hank's daughter, Jett. She would be born five days after Hank's death and his mother would adopt her and raise her until her death. Hank's sister Irene would send the girl into the system and she wouldn't know she was Hank's daughter until the 1980s. After the fling with Bobbie, Hank took up with Billie Jean Jones and they married in October of 1952. Hank had jumped the gun again though with this marriage. Billie wasn't divorced. her divorce wasn't official until 11 days after the marriage. A judge later ruled the marriage was not legal after Audrey and his mother pursued the issue. Williams was already dead at that time.

Hank was a regular performer still on the Grand Ole Opry, but in August of 1952 he was fired because he was constantly missing shows and when he did show up, he was drunk. So he went back to the Louisiana Hayride and started touring with them, but his addictions were powerful. His band and friends tried to get him to shows sober, but he often didn't show up or he performed poorly. Even though he was only 29, Hank started having serious heart issues. He did his last recording session with Acuff-Rose Music in September of 1952 and this included the song "Your Cheatin' Heart." Fred Rose cut him loose after that. Hank was touring in Oklahoma when he met Toby Marshall who was posing as a doctor with a fake diploma. He was actually a convict on Parole from Oklahoma State Penitentiary. With the fake title, Marshall prescribed Williams morphine and amphetamines, which made the heart issues worse. Hank performed in his last concert on December 19, 1952.

Williams was being driven to Charleston, West Virginia in a “North Carolina blue” Cadillac convertible with whitewall tires and a “Flying Goddess” hood ornament when his driver, high school student Charles Carr, stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee to get help from a doctor. Williams had combined chloral hydrate and alcohol, which had heavily sedated him. A doctor gave him a Vitamin B12 shot with morphine and porters at a hotel carried him to the car. Carr and Williams continued their trip and arrived in Bristol, Virginia around midnight on January 1, 1953. Carr stopped at a diner and asked if Hank wanted anything and he said he didn't and that would be the last thing he said. Apparently, Carr didn't realize that Hank had died until he stopped at a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia and noticed that Hank's body curled beneath a navy-blue overcoat wasn't stirring at all. Rigor mortis had already set in and the police were called. The coroner did an autopsy and found hemorrhaging in Hank's neck and heart and some injuries that looked like he had been in a fight recently, including a welt on his head. He ruled the death as heart failure. Hank was transported to Montgomery and buried in a silver casket at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery. Hank Williams, Jr. had his father's grave rebuilt after his mother Audrey passed away and he had her interred next to his father. The monument is made from Vermont granite and has carvings of Hanks boots and guitar and his greatest hits and also has a sculptured hat.

Williams fame skyrocketed after his death and his image and music were in heavy demand. He would go on to be declared the "King of Country Music." He had been signed to start making motion pictures, but obviously he didn't live for that to happen. A movie about his life starring George Hamilton, "Your Cheatin' Heart," came out in 1964. Hank would receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Williams family carried on the music tradition with every generation having musicians and Hank's final contribution to music was completed in 2011 with the release of the album "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams." There were unfinished lyrics with Hank in the back seat of the car when he died. These were later found in a dumpster by a janitor at Sony/ATV Music Publishing in 2006. She sold them to the Honky-Tonk Hall of Fame and the Rock-N-Roll Roadshow, but was later accused of theft. A judge sided with her, but the lyrics were returned to Sony/ATV and they asked Bob Dylan to complete an album with them. Artists who recorded for the album included Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Levon Helm, Jakob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, and Merle Haggard.

But that hasn't been the end for Hank Williams. His spirit still seems to be here in the afterlife. One of Williams favorite cities was Nashville and that makes sense since this is basically like country's capital. The Ryman Auditorium is a place where every great act from country has played at one point. This location is a favorite haunt of Patsy Cline and it is for Hank as well. An employee claims to have seen Williams materialize in a white mist. She saw the white mist onstage and as she continued to get closer to it, it started to take a more defined shape and when she got as close as she dared, she could see the unmistakable thin, lanky form of Williams leaning over a microphone as though he were singing. A construction worker also claimed to see a white misty thin form during renovations in the 1990s. Hank's spirit wanders all over the Ryman, being seen in hallways, on the stage and backstage.

Songwriter Gary Gentry had an interesting tale about the spirit of Hank. Gentry was working with J.B. Detterline on a Hank Williams tribute film in 1982 called "The Ride." The men decided to write a song as a tribute to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and they called it “Wherever Hank and Lefty Are, That’s Where I Want to Go.” Gentry went home and felt restless. He was living a life similar to Hank, doing drugs and drinking a lot and he felt like the song didn't do justice to the country legend. He decided to conduct a seance to contact Hank. He said, "I wanted to write a masterpiece about Hank. And I was mad, and I was drunk. So I said, ‘Hank! Why were you so big? Just because you died young? Show yourself! Help me write this song.” And according to Gentry, he did. Hank appeared sitting on the couch without a shirt on and Gentry said, "Hank, we’re gonna take a ride. I wanna write about you. I think you’re the greatest songwriter and entertainer that ever lived." Gentry hopped in his car at 4am and drove around. When he got home, he called J.B. Detterline and they completed the song. David Allan Coe eventually recorded the song now called "The Ride" and released it as a single in 1983. Shortly after that, Gentry performed the song at the Grand Ole Opry House for a television show and when he got to the word “Hank” in the big payoff line, the lights and electricity went out at the Ryman and also the entire Opryland complex.

The last place Hank performed publicly before his death was The Elite Lounge Casino Cafe in Montgomery. This place eventually became a restaurant known as Nobles and now we think it is Club 50/50. The location has been haunted for decades and Williams is believed to be one of the spirits here. People claim to see a man in a suit and that is what they have nicknamed him. Hank always wore a suit on stage. This spirit is feisty like Hank and likes to rap on tables make loud noises. Tables and chairs have even been witnessed moving on their own. Another Montgomery haunt for Hank is his gravesite at Oakwood Cemetery. Alan Jackson's song "Midnight in Montgomery" is about his experience of visiting Williams grave on New Year's Eve before a show and having the spirit appear and thank him for his tribute. A mist like the one seen at the Ryman is seen here as well and people sometimes hear a Hank Williams tune in the air, especially if the start off singing a song and then stop. Williams also played on the streets near city hall and some people claim to see his spirit down by the building occasionally as well.

The Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville was a place that Williams stayed on his road trip to death. This was once the tallest building in the city and is today government offices. The spirit that haunts this building is very fast, so it is hard for witnesses to be sure that it belongs to Hank, but singing tends to accompany this ghost and it sounds a lot like Williams. There was also a sighting of Williams in Oak Hill, West Virginia. A man was walking past the gas station where he was found dead and the Old Tyree Funeral Home where the body was taken and he heard music on the air. He then saw a thin figure standing on the street who was wearing a white suit and a cowboy hat. The figure was puffing on a cigarette and tipped his hat at the witness. There was no doubt to the man that this was Hank Williams. The minute he realized that, the figure disappeared. 

Matt Swayne in his book "Ghosts of Country Music" shares a story that was shared with psychic-medium Mary Lynn Stevenson by a family from Mississippi. The story is set in Autumn and the daughter Deborah is headed to the high school Homecoming Dance. She was carpooling all of her friends and the group of girls had a great time. Deborah dropped everyone off after the dance and headed home. She ended up on an unfamiliar road and was soon lost. Her gas was running low and she didn't have much when she spotted a store over the hill. She tried the pay phone, but it didn't work. She drove further on to a gas station with another dead pay phone. Deborah fumbled with the paper in her pocket to see how much money she had for gas and discovered she actually had no money. She started to weep in the car. Before long, a man in a brown suit with gold stitching and sporting a cowboy hat, walked up to her car. He asked, "What's wrong, Little Lady?" She told him her troubles and he gave her money for gas and phone calls and told her to go straight home. Deborah decided to go into the store to thank the man and get directions. No employees knew what she was talking about. They hadn't seen any cowboy. Deborah made it home and her mom asked how things had gone. Deborah said fine at first, but then told her mom of her troubles. Her mother revealed that she had a premonition and it made her very concerned, so she prayed that a guardian angel would be sent to help Deborah. Both women decided that the cowboy was the guardian angel. A few days later, they were both in a store and flipping through a magazine. When the page opened to a certain page, Deborah called out, "That's the man who helped me!" Deborah's mother looked at the name in the caption and it was Hank Williams. She told Deborah that wasn't possible, but Deborah was absolutely positive that Hank Williams had been her guardian angel.

Hank Williams lived a big life in a very short amount of time. His legacy has spanned decades. Has his spirit continued on in this plane of existence. Are these places haunted by Hank Williams? That is for you to decide!

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