The case of country music and its poetry of pain
Great country singer-songwriter Hank Williams has been given many nicknames over the years since his tragically early death. One that I find particularly appropriate is ‘Poet of Pain’. It occurs to me that it could well apply to a large number of other country artists. It’s certainly worth pointing out this dimension of “pain,” as country is a genre that is often dismissed as a superficial form of entertainment for thoughtless and insensitive consumers. By “pain” I mean here not only physical discomfort, but also a whole range of emotions such as depression, worry, distress and despair, not to mention the daily melancholy.
Perhaps I should add, before continuing, that the “poetry of pain” is found in a large number ofand and 20th century literature. It can be recognized in a wide range of writings: for example, “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” by Emily Dickinson, “During Wind and Rain” by Thomas Hardy, “Into my heart an air that kills” by AEHousman, ‘This Be the Verse’, Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’. Moreover, there is probably no purer expression of the pain of human existence than the genre music we call “the blues”. Listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson sing “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, Lightnin’ Hopkins sing “Feel So Bad”, or Howling Wolf sing “Smokestack Lightning”, for example. Williams himself memorably defined country music as “the white man’s blues”.
He certainly understood the nature of suffering. His short life (1923-1953) was marked by persistent physical pain (due initially to spinal deformity, but greatly aggravated in his adult life due to a serious accident). In light of this, one can only marvel at the amount of awe-inspiring music he has produced. Also, some of his greatest songs were the ones he wrote the lyrics to. Consider “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry” (1949).
Here, the dying leaves, the weeping robin and the lost will to live combine to give us a heightened sense of the sheer tragedy of existence. The economy of expression is remarkable both here and in the following stanza – which contrasts everyday details with the panorama of a “purple sky” lit by “a shooting star”. Daily suffering is placed in a cosmic context.
Williams didn’t compose all of his own songs, but in choosing songs to record he showed an astute appreciation for the power of others’ lyrics. For example, in the same year as “Lonesome”, he recorded “Lost Highway” (1949) by Leon Payne, in which the story of the protagonist’s downfall is summed up with powerful intensity.
The song derives much of its effect from the conciseness of the lyrics. The time limit of a country shot (about two and a half minutes) was taken by Payne as an opportunity to deploy short, revealing phrases that add up to a life ill-spent: that of a ‘rollin’ stone ‘ who lived ‘a life of sin’. Williams’ performance lives up to those words.
It is the poetry of pain for sure. Yet the lamentation over sin necessarily suggests the possibility of salvation. As with much country music, the intensity of suffering is found to only have meaning in contrast to the healing power of religious belief. At the very beginning of his career, Williams himself wrote and sang “I Saw the Light” (1948).
Here we have the “sinful aimless life”; but it is in the depths of the night – a night symbolizing the miserable state of the sinner – that “my dear saviour” comes to him. Just to uphold the message, the sinner is considered “a blind man” who “wandered” until “God restored his sight.”
At the risk of oversimplification, one could say that with Williams, as with many other early country artists, there is painbut there is also hope for shame; and this hope is often nourished by devotion.
Nowhere is this combination more evident than in the work of probably the most famous country artist of all, Johnny Cash. In ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (1956), the sound may be very close to the ‘rockabilly’ of the first Elvis Presleys, but the vision is not far from that of Hank Williams: a criminal regrets his crime, and he laments on the lack of freedom which is his punishment.
The song’s most famous line—”I shot a man in Reno just to see him die”—has often been misinterpreted as callous boast. Rather, it is a humble confession. It should be considered along with another of Cash’s famous songs, “Man In Black” (1971).
Here, he explains his dark outfit as a statement of solidarity with the damned of the earth. He wears black for “the poor and the beaten” and for the prisoner who is “a victim of the times”. So poetry is in pity; but here it is also in godliness, as Cash points out. He wears black for “those who have never read, / Or listened to the words that Jesus said”. Nor is it a moralizing gesture. He wears black ‘for the thousands that died, / Believin’ that the Lord was on their side’; and also, even more tragically, for all those who died “To believe that we were all on their side”.
Cash clearly has the Vietnam War in mind: “Every week we lose a hundred handsome young men” in the name of a bogus cause. Poetry, pity, piety… but also protest against a secular state that kills its youth in the name of God. It’s a powerful challenge from someone who was an unapologetic Christian, yet familiar with the darker side of life, especially through drug addiction. If we were to generalize about Cash’s music, we could say that it explores both the depths of secular existence and the heights of sacred revelation: indeed, he explores the tension between them.
Gram Parsons was someone else who was concerned with both darkness and vision. Credited with the invention of “country rock”, he had a tragically short career, cut short by a drug overdose. However, he left remarkable work, notably with the Byrds on their pioneering album Rodeo sweetheart (1968) and on his two solo albums generalist (1973) and painful angel (1974). From the first, we can distinguish “Hickory Wind”, co-written with Bob Buchanan (1968). Here, the feeling of nostalgia stems from nostalgia, from the desire for life to be as simple and beautiful as it once seemed:
There is the state of things in the present: “trouble is real” in a town far removed from the singer’s roots; but there is also the memory of his childhood, which arises whenever he hears the wind that once blew through the leaves of the hickory trees he knew back then. This wind represents a healing power to which the singer aspires.
A more complex picture emerges in Parsons’ solo work, particularly that included in Sorrowful angel. The very title of the album indicates the enduring thematic tension in Parsons’ work between the sense of sin and the search for salvation, between suffering and healing. The first song, “Return of the Grievous Angel” (1974), explores the competing pressures on the protagonist as he travels across the United States.
He describes himself as “the serious angel”, accompanied by “the truckers, the kickers and the cowboy angels” and finds “a good saloon in every town”. Having seen both his “devil” and his “deep blue sea”, and now wishing to surpass them both, he longs for a state of grace which he sees personified by the woman in the “calico bonnet”.
Here I recall various scenes from John Ford’s great westerns, especially My darling Clementine (1946). Perhaps – if we could take the risk of sounding pretentious – we could also remember the work of Dante divine comedy: she is Beatrice in the earthly paradise, while he is Dante walking towards her through hell and then through purgatory.
From the last track on the album, “In My Hour of Darkness” (1974), he feels capable of explicitly praying for salvation, as in the chorus:
Each verse is about different lives that his own singer has intersected with: for example, a young man who died in a traffic accident; another young man who became a successful country artist but remained a simple country boy at heart; and an old man who served as the singer’s mentor. He hopes to have learned something from each, and he now asks for divine guidance. So, with Gram Parsons, we can see the poetry of pain informed by a kind of improvised piety, which seeks spiritual healing without finding resolution.
It was this sense of broken promise that prompted Emmylou Harris, who had shared vocals with Parsons on both of her albums, to celebrate the damaged life of a “grave angel” and mourn her untimely death at the Joshua Tree Inn. not far from the famous national park. ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ (1974) is a powerful elegy for the man who had taught him so much about the beauty of country music: it is full of pity for a damaged human being. It also honors her spiritual quest, with its explicitly biblical imagery:
Quite rightly, she remembers a time when she was in “the desert” watching a canyon “burn”: a possible reference to the fact that Parson’s body was cremated in the desert by his friends, so to avoid a conventional burial, but also a Biblical reference – possibly the burning bush, encountered by Moses in the aforementioned desert. It is therefore appropriate that she invokes Abraham, the father of faith, and expresses the desire to “hold my life in his saving grace”. From pity to piety, then; but the human relationship is also due, as she states her willingness to “go all the way from Boulder to Birmingham” if it meant she could see him again.