September 17th marks the 96th anniversary of the birth of the country-music icon commonly referred to as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare.” Hank Williams not only earned that distinction for the many exceptional songs he wrote throughout his short, turbulent, yet influential career, but for his uncanny ability to connect with radio listeners and concert audiences, whether performing a rousing honky-tonk tune or, in the persona of his alter ego, Luke the Drifter, laying heart and soul bare with a gospel song.
As a child growing up in Alabama, Hank Williams met African-American street musician Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, who would have a lasting influence on Williams, his songs and his guitar playing. In April 1952, just eight months before his death, Williams was in Oakland, California, where he spoke to future Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph J. Gleason, who was then mostly writing about jazz and had a weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1969, Rolling Stone published Gleason’s article, “Perspectives: Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Then God!” In it, Williams recalls Payne’s role in his early development as a musician, telling Gleason, “I’d give him 15 cents or whatever I could get a hold of for a lesson. When I was about eight years old, I got my first git-tar. A second-hand $3.50 git-tar my mother bought me. Then I got a jazz horn and played both of them at dances and had a band when I was 14 or 15.”
At 15 years old, in 1938, Williams was performing on WFSA radio in Montgomery, Alabama. The “jazz horn” was actually thought (by an early Williams biographer) to be something like a kazoo, or a similar instrument you’d play simply by blowing into it. This instrument is possibly heard on what is surely one of the most fascinating bits of Williams’ history: the first recordings in existence featuring his voice. The recordings surfaced in 2010, when former local Alabama DJ “Uncle” Bob Helton rediscovered an acetate disc he had made in his kitchen, a session featuring accordion player Pee Wee Moultrie that took place mere months after Williams formed his first incarnation of the Drifting Cowboys. The songs, “Fan It” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” demonstrate the influence that blues and Western Swing, respectively, had on the young singer.
“Fan It” was a double-entendre tune written and popularized in 1928 by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and His Hot Shots. Jaxon was a blues performer who often worked as a female impersonator in the early part of the 20th century. Before Williams recorded this version, the song had been cut by acts including Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Milton Brown and the Brownies. This version, while brief, demonstrates Williams’ ability, even as a teenager, to deliver a tune with enthusiastic showmanship. “Fan It” would go on to be recorded by big band legend Woody Herman, Willie Nelson with Asleep at the Wheel, and Pokey LaFarge and the Big City Three, among many others.
Also featured in the above clip is a bouncy rendition of the Irving Berlin classic, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which had first become a hit for the composer in 1911. This cut emphasizes Moultrie’s lively accordion playing before Williams joins in, exhibiting a wildly unique blend of ragtime and honky-tonk in his voice, which a decade later would be among the most well-known in country music, and remains so to this day.
“Fan It” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” are available on a Time-Life collection of rare and previously unreleased Hank Williams recordings titled The Legend Begins, originally issued as a three-disc set in 2011.
Hank Williams’ career and legacy are explored in depth in Episode Three of Ken Burns’ Country Music, “The Hillbilly Shakespeare,” airing tonight on PBS.