Bob Dylan has written about Hank Williams (in his biography Chronicles) and recorded his songs, both formally and on ragged amateur tape recordings as early as 1961. There have been legitimate recordings such as "Can't Get You Off Of My Mind" on the tribute album he produced and released on his own Imprint. Later, of course, he was given the honor of selecting artists to complete the unfinished songs Hank left behind. That is no small honor but certainly made perfect sense. Tin Pan Alley notwithstanding, Hank and Bob are the great American songwriters. No matter that absolutely no one can sing either of them as well.
No songwriter of the 20th century (and beyond) will be able to write without Hank in mind, even the elliptical Dylan. The purity, deceptive simplicity and concise editing of Hank (and his writing partner Fred Rose) are staggering. I have given the book of his lyrics away as gifts more than once. The songs are the best poetry written in the American Vernacular. A mere line of Hank is often enough to paint an entire world.
Dylan knew that, of course, having been a young pup with radio ears like Nipper the day Hank left.
Hank may in fact have been Dylan's first "Woody" so to speak.
Luke the Drifter was Hank's alter-ego. Ol' Hank recorded a dozen or so songs by that name in a recitative delivery. Religious parables and platitudes, each a weeper, and each with loss, heartbreak and more…all with a serious religious bend not associated with the honky-tonk hard-drinking image he already had in the public eye. They were among his most heartfelt material, if a bit sappy. They have remained my own personal favorites for a long time. I imagine Hank penning them while his back hurt, on those days when the pills and booze didn't work enough, or when his first wife Audrey was drifting. Hank turned to faith when tormented…but he had the good sense and taste to release the material under a splendid pseudonym.
What brings this to mind? Dylan's OWN Luke the Drifter song! The magnificent "Sign on the Cross" which to my knowledge has never been released, but is a genuine highpoint on the Basement Tapes. Spoken with the same expressive, mournful voice Hank used for his religious tales, and there is no doubt in my mind Hank was spinning in Bob's when he wrote it.
"Wrote" could be too strong, but "channeled" is not. It was one of the Basement tapes numbers seemingly created on the spot. Yet it sticks together, and Dylan is "here to tell you friends" the cross is still there. It is a magnificent recording and like a good deal of the some 100 songs never released, a masterpiece. The band backing him is, as usual, extraordinary. All of them. Robertson's delicate, then screaming solo is perfect, the intensity rises with Dylan's plaintive voice and we are literally saved.
Ever since Mr. Dylan's record company has been creating their own bootlegs (the series now numbers nine, yet just starting, trust me) and in the Dylan fan community speculation is rife what will emerge on number ten) it has been a shame the entire Basement Tapes have remained under wraps. I am beginning to suspect legal complications are preventing their release…and Lord knows when the lawyers get involved, art frequently leaves town. To paraphrase the song you may never hear, that is what worries me.
Bob Dylan lyrics to Sign on the Cross are HERE.
Luke the Drifter is HERE.
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