Hank and Townes: Long Gone Daddies

hank and townesToday, January 1st, marks the anniversary of the deaths of two great American songwriters, Hank Williams in 1953 and Townes Van Zandt in 1997.   In addition to their coincidental departure dates, these two shared a lot in common.

They were both long and lanky long gone daddies with dark hair and eyes, and they both had what my granddaddy called “jug ears.” In fact, judging by these two accompanying photographs, I suspect that a DNA test would discover a shared ancestor in the not too distant past.

cropped hankdrunkcropped townes

More significantly, they also possessed the rare ability to create memorable melodies with song lyrics that can stand alone on a page without musical accompaniment.

First Hank:

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.

He sounds too blue to fly.

The midnight train is whining low.

I’m so lonesome I could cry.

Then Townes:

Everything is not enough.

And nothin’ is too much to bear.

Where you’ve been is good and gone.

All you keep’s the getting there.

Well, to live is to fly, all low and high.

So shake the dust off of your wings

And the sleep out of your eyes.

Theirs was a tragic vision.  To quote Richard Sewell:

[The tragic vision] recalls the original terror, harking back to a world that antedates the conception of philosophy, the consolations of the later religions, and whatever constructions the human mind has devised to persuade itself that the universe is secure. It recalls the original un-reason, the terror of the irrational. It sees man as questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside, and the irreducible facts of suffering and death. Thus it is not for those who cannot live with unresolved questions or unresolved doubts, whose bent of mind would reduce the fact of evil into something else or resolve it into some larger whole.

Like their artistic archetype Edgar Allan Poe, throughout their abbreviated lives, they were besieged by “demonic forces in their own natures,” and like Poe, they attempted to neutralize those demons through drink and more exotic drugs — in Hank’s case, chloral hydrate and barbiturates, and in Townes’s, codeine and heroin.

However, when it comes to self-destruction, I don’t think either EA or Hank could hold a candle to Townes Van Zandt. Supposedly, Poe gambled to augment his stepfather’s meager allowance, but in Townes’s case, his gambling seemed a deep-seated masochistic addiction.

According to John Kruth’s biography, To Live’s to Fly, not only did Van Zandt literally lose shirts off his back, but in one card game, he also lost his gold dental inlays, which he pulled out with pliers and delivered on the spot as payment.   He also had the propensity to give all his hard earned money away to winos after getting paid for a gig.  Like a crazed character out of Dostoyevsky, he seemed to seek out suffering, perhaps for the sake of his art.


Year after year,

bottle after bottle,

for the sake of the song,

stumbling full throttle,

gig after gig,

swig after swig,

staggering through life,

for the sake of the song.


’97, New Year’s Day,

home from the hospital

he slipped away —

one hand on his heart,

the other on his flask —

the weight of the world

suddenly gone slack,

his windswept world,

forever gone black.


Some say he suffered

for the sake of the song,

cultivated sorrow

for the sake of the song.


Rot gut, suicides, needles, yellow fever,

all the hurt in the world out West,

took up residence in his hollow heart,

like a stick-stirred rattlesnake’s nest.


For the sake of the song,

for the sake of the song,

they say life is short,

but art is long.


For the sake of the song,

for the sake of the song,

right might not be right;

wrong might not be wrong.



RIP, boys.

7 thoughts on “Hank and Townes: Long Gone Daddies

  1. Ah, Rusty 🙂 You’re like the oxidation on the Statue of Liberty 🙂 Shining the monument would be like cleaning imperfect oxidation on a cookie cutter society. How you educators remain pure through the post 9/11 world in which we live, I’ll never know but do admire.

  2. the greatest artists in the world have to find a “substitute” for what they seek, whatever the soul desires, the heart? I fear that most of us will never find “it”, i thought i found it once…

  3. Wes-
    An eloquent tribute to my two favorite long gone daddies as well as my intro by fire to your blog. “There’s only two kinds of music, the blues and Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” -TVZ. I’ll take the blues everyday. Plus, the latter kind is obnoxiously sunny with apparent racist undertones. So excuse me while I try to hitch a ride to the Old Quarter in Galveston with a fifth of rot gut vodka and a two liter of orange crush.

  4. Pingback: A Year Most of Us Would Like to Forget – You Do Hoodoo?

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