Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits”

Cover for Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits album

This week, I’ve been listening to the posthumous double-LP greatest hits album of Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits.” Mercury Records released this compilation on the 25th anniversary of Hank Williams’s passing on new year’s day 1953 in the small city of Oak Hill, WV. Williams recorded all of these songs for MGM between 1947 and 1952. This compilation presents more direct recordings of the songs, without much of the overdubs heard on earlier releases.

I grew up in a family that listened to pop and rock music;The only place I heard 90s country music was on the school bus radio. It shocked me, in my 30s, to learn that my dad had primarily listened to country music in his early teens. I only heard Hank Williams songs in commercials, tv shows as a joke, or in cover versions. That changed in my adult years. Dwight Yoakam became the first country artist that i seriously liked, and he provided my introduction to artists that came before him.

What we have here is a collection of early country music recordings. Remember, Columbia introduced the 12 inch LP format in 1948. Before that, an album was a collection of physical singles. Music was mostly purchased on thick acetate records, an early example being Eck Robertson’s Sallie Gooden from 1922. The “Howdy Doody” show first aired in 1947. Many consider 1949 the birth year of rock music, but it rock music didn’t really take off until 1954 with “Rock Around the Clock.” Hank Williams recorded these songs between 1947 and 1952. Recording music was still fairly new, and the idea of an album was a decade off yet.

Move It On Over

If we consider 1949 the birth of rock music, then Williams’s “Move It On Over” sounds like a strong precursor. Bill Haley even covered it, as well as particularly rocking cover by George Thorogood. The song combines twelve-bar blues with a country shuffle. The upbeat Williams recording features basic percussion, an upright bass playing a walking groove, acoustic guitar strumming chords, electric guitar playing bluesy melodic lines, fiddle padding between vocals lines, backing vocals from the group, and Hank Williams singing lead. The percussion is so far back it’s more felt than heard. The upright bass provides more of a percussive sound to the track than the drums.

Each verse follow a blues progression of I-I-IV-I-V-I. The first two lines of each verse provide the narrative part. The speaker spending too many nights out late and his wife won’t let him back in the house. The rest of each verse are spoken to the dog in the doghouse. The titular phrase “Move it on over” is to the dog, because the doghouse is getting rather cramped now that the “big dog’s moving in.” The second two lines of each verse features a call and response with the backing vocals answering “move it on over.” And then each verse is capped with the punchline (of sorts) “Move over short dog cause the tall dog’s moving in.”

She warned me once, she warned me twice
But I don’t take no one’s advice
So scratch it on over (move it on over)
Shake it on over (move it on over)
Move over short dog cause a tall dog’s moving in

Ramblin’ Man

Williams wrote the mournful slow song “Ramblin’ Man” with a simple two chord progression in a minor key: i-V7. Bass guitar beats on the first and third beat of each measure. Acoustic guitar strums, emphasizing each slow quarter like a slowly churning train in the distance. A fiddle cries gently, again that far-off train’s whistle. Clean electric guitar with tremolo provides a haunting lead accompanying Williams’s singing. The speaker provides this apologetic dirge on how he can’t settle down because the urge to travel and move on is stronger than his love for the listener.

Each verse consists of four lines followed by a two line refrain. Each pair of lines rhyme as a couplet. He consistently uses the sound of the train as providing the call to ramble. This is combined with the declaration that God made him this way, he must ramble. His nature and that call compels him to leave, and no matter how he might want to, he cannot deny his nature.

I can settle down and be doing just fine
Til’ I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the Lord made me, he made a Ramblin’ Man

Hey, Good Lookin’

Hank Williams wrote his “Hey Good Lookin'” drawing direct inspiration from the Cole Porter song “Hey Good Lookin’.” Legend has it that Williams wrote the song in less than half-an-hour when requested to write a hit song for a friend. Either he wrote it knowingly making a reference to the Cole Porter song, or it was a subconscious transference. The Porter song has the lines of “Hey good lookin’,
Say what’s cookin’? Do you feel like bookin’ some fun tonight?” With first two lines sung not terribly unlike the Hank Williams tune, which starts with “Hey good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ something up with me?” Both songs use the cooking as a starting point for a proposition of love in much the same way.

I first heard this song in commercials from the mid-80s from the National Cheese Board, “How’s about cookin’ something up with cheese?

The catchy chorus of the Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'” follow a I-I-II-V7 chord progression. The verses drop into a IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-II-V7 progression. A IV-I progression is the same as a I-V progression in the subdominant. I do not suggest that this is a key change, but it is interesting to think about, because if the song opened with a verse, we might suspect the song was in a different key than it is. The chorus establishes the key at the beginning. This contributes to the feeling of stable resolution that the chorus provides after the IV-I progression of the verses.

The lyrics of first verse maintain the AABB rhyme scheme that is also used in the other verse. “dollar bill” rhymes with “over the hill.” is better than just “bill” with “hill” But listen also to the use of consonance within the lines. “got a hot rod ford” with “spot” and “soda pop.” He sings “dollar” and “dancing” likewise in the same position of the first and third lines. These lines beat musically without even hearing the melody.

I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun come along with me

40 Greatest Hits

Many of these songs bare similarities to each other, more so than often found on albums. I think that is due to the nature of their original intentions as releases. The public received these as singles with two songs at a time. The need to try something different in approach was not as strong when the songs were not going to be heard all together. There’s also similarities that are normal within a genre, especially with a single artist.

The bass almost always emphasizes the first and third beat of each measure, with a walking bass that bounces back and forth travelling across the progression. The acoustic guitar shuffles, with emphasis on the second and third beat of each measure. A brushed snare drum often strengthens the rhythm of the acoustic. A clean electric guitar, sometimes with subtle tremolo, opens the tracks with a country-blues lead that pulls the listener into the rhythm of the song. These intros are frequently only one or two bars. The songs are about the emotional narrative, usually mournful and sad. Metaphors represent the other feeling or urges, and Williams wisely uses one metaphor per song, making word choices that support both that metaphor and the emotion.

Overall, this is a collection of extremely well-crafted songs.

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