Someone once said that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. One thinker begins the preoccupations and concerns that thousands of others later explore, from thousands of angles. Even a rejection of these founding concerns is a response to them. You can’t escape from the influence of your parents, whether your response is obedience or rebellion.
In a similar manner, the Hank Williams composition “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the country song to which all others are footnotes, explications, reiterations, arguments. Even a song with no obvious relation – say a throwaway piece of pop-country that consists mostly of forced hip-hop references and automobile product placement – lives under that shadow, because the composer had to make a conscious choice to write about the peripheral and the trending, knowing full well that he is operating in the same genre that produced this edifice, this obelisk, this great somber monument to spiritual desolation.
Hank originally wrote the song as a recitation for his alter ego, Luke the Drifter, a persona he created in order to explore themes that might not go over very well with the jukebox industry that was a major source of his income. Lots of sermons, narratives, moral fables. Not stuff you want to hear in a bar. “Lonesome” wouldn’t really work in the Luke the Drifter catalogue, though – it has neither moral nor narrative – and at some point Hank must have realized this. So he sung it rather than spoke it, and put it out under his own name.
There is no story to this song. And it’s not really the kind of internal emotional snapshot that was his other speciality. Instead, it describes an external landscape that allows the audience entry into the less-accessible, internal places that are beyond the reach of words, like an Expressionist painting, or a haunting photograph that says more than it shows – maybe a photo of a tree on a hilltop that was really there, that anyone could have walked past, but you look at the photo and think: “The photographer had a broken heart.”
“Lonesome” involves more than visuals though; all of the senses come into play. Here is the first verse:
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
That midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
Appropriately, the first thing the singer invites us to do is hear. Not to hear him, however, but to hear the sounds he hears, the sounds behind this voice that Bob Dylan once described as sounding like “a beautiful horn.”
First, we hear the whippoorwill. The eerie, evocative call of this nightbird has given birth to much folklore, many superstitions. It is a harbinger of death that captures souls. It is an omen of impending disaster. But it is none of these things in the song. Any duties it may have as a supernatural agent have been put aside, because it is too blue even to fly. It can only sing its provocatively mournful song. The singer hears, and responds with his own cry of sorrow: two songs reflecting each other over a bed of steel guitar.
Then, another sound. The train whistle. Trains of course are endemic in country, folk and blues music. The effect the introduction of rail-travel had on the consciousness of the ordinary American was seismic, total. Suddenly people whose lives had been limited to the radius of a few square miles had the ability to jump on a moving train and change everything – their location, their name, their work, their friends and family. Especially in the days before the dominance of mass-media created our one shared monoculture, one ride on a train could put you in a different world, with different ways of speaking and dressing, playing and working, dancing and thinking. Trains in the old songs often represented freedom, escape, and re-invention.
Not so here. The singer has nowhere to go, or no ambitions to go anywhere. Instead the train whistle is just another sound in the strange symphony he hears. (I always picture him sitting at a window in the early evening, listening, watching, utterly passive.) Rather than tell him anything about the outside world, the world beyond his window, the solipsistic narrator hears a harmony to his own sadness in every sound around him. The whippoorwill is singing for him, the train is whining low in tribute to his devastation. The world outside him is the world inside him: each contains the other.
The second verse:
I’ve never seen a night so long
when times goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
to hide its face and cry
Time slows, a river that once rushed is now lurching over stones and gravel, attempting to find its course. The depressed know this feeling, this sluggish stasis. He has never seen a night so long. Outside, the world goes about its business: the nightbirds awaken to sing, the trains pass by on their appointed routes. But in the house, the singer sits by the window in suspended animation. Everything he sees moves slowly, pushing against an obstacle – something in the way.
His sadness, it seems, is cosmic. When the moon moves behind a passing cloud, it is as though it has pulled a veil over its face to hide its tears. Is it crying in sympathy with the singer, or crying over his inability to move, to escape the inertia of his sadness? It doesn’t matter. At this point, in this one unspeakable moment that stretches out over the night, even the moon itself is involved in the singer’s private pain.
The third verse:
Have you ever seen a robin weep
when leaves begin to die?
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry
“Have you ever seen a robin weep?” What a strange and unsettling question. Imagine it asked of you by a thin stranger with deep black eyes. You might turn and walk away with some speed. How odd that the singer is now asking you this question. Have you seen this thing – a robin weeping over the death of spring? Yes, you might respond – I guess I have. So he tells you what it means. But here the story gets murky. The published lyrics have always read, “That means he’s lost the will to live.” The suggestion is clear, but many listeners hear another, more direct lyric: “Like me, he’s lost the will to live.” You can listen closely and not be sure. But in truth the difference is minimal, unimportant. The singer has given up. Nature surrenders with him.
The fourth and final verse:
The silence of a falling star
lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
I’m not the first person to comment on the seeming synesthesia in these lines. It is not the flare of the falling star but its silence that lights up the sky. The singer’s senses have become deranged, have begun to blend like damp watercolors. But in truth even those of us with more traditional sensory perceptions can, perhaps, understand. Think of what it is like to witness a falling star: the sudden flash, the brief, cosmic sprint across the night sky. A falling star should be momentous, gigantic, deafening. But it is not; it comes and goes without a sound; silence may be its defining characteristic. That silence really can light up the sky, if you let it. And how much more so when everything else around you is speaking: the train whistle in the dim distance, the whippoorwill in the hickory tree, the robin whose call echoes in your memory? Then, suddenly – and slowly, because time has slowed – a falling star crosses the purple sky in utter, engulfing silence.
And you feel a chill. I say “you” because you are the singer now. He has surrounded you by all the sights and sounds around him until the identification is complete. The philosopher David Hume believed that there is no self, that a person is merely an aggregation of all of their experiences and sense-perceptions and memories. That’s true in this song, at least, and as Hank Williams slowly fills you with his sense-perceptions, these replace your own until you yourself are sitting by that window, and you yourself are stuck in a moment outside of time, in a sorrowful feedback loop with nature itself.
And then, as that falling star scars the sky, in that instant, you wonder about someone. About where they are in this moment. This person could be a lover, is often assumed to be by listeners. But they are not identified. They could be a parent, a friend, even a child. They could have left, or they could be dead.
There are some who resent the sudden intrusion of the personal into this masterpiece of evasion and abstraction. The singer could have finished the song without hinting at a reason for the pervasive desolation. But that would have been a lesser song. The technique he employed – to create a tapestry of loss that extends from birdsong and train-whistles to the very moon and stars themselves, and then, in the final “shot,” if you will, of the song, zoom in from this wide-angle perspective to a single person, a single loss, an actual, experienced, human source of heartbreak – this is the master-stroke.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” has none of the stereotypical hallmarks of country music. No boozing, no cheating, no God, no work, no marriage, no divorce, certainly no trucks. But it defines, for now and always, the existential loneliness that is the cold secret heart of the music, the reason it has never died, despite all the indignities it has suffered. Hank worked it out that way. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” describes a moment out of time, cast in perfect stillness forever. It really happened. It is happening now.