Hank William’s Influence on Bob Dylan – Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

Many readers are undoubtedly already aware that Dylan has cited the greatest country music artist of all time, the country Shakespeare – Hank Williams – as his first influence. He wrote in the liner notes of Joan Baez In Concert, Part 2:

An my first idol was Hank Williams
For he sang about the railroad lines
An the iron bars an rattlin wheels
Left no doubt that they were real

In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan writes:

“The first time I heard Hank he was singing on the Grand Ole Opry, a Saturday night radio show broadcast out of Nashville. Roy Acuff, who MC’d the program was referred to by the announcer as “The King of Country Music.” Someone would always be introduced as “the next governor of Tennessee” and the show advertised dog food and sold plans for old-age pensions. Hank sang “Move It On Over”, a song about living in the doghouse and it struck me really funny. He also sang spirituals like “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” and “Are you Walking and a-Talking for the Lord”. The sound of his voice went through me like an electric rod and I managed to get a hold of a few of his 78s – “Baby We’re Really In Love” and “Honky Tonkin’” and “Lost Highway “ – and I played them endlessly.

They called him a “hillbilly singer,” but I didn’t know what that was. Homer and Jethro were more like what I thought a hillbilly was. Hank was no burr head. There was nothing clownish about him. Even at a young age, I identified fully with him. I didn’t have to experience anything that Hank did to know what he was singing about. I’d never seen a robin weep, but could imagine it and it made me sad. When he sand ‘the news is out all over town”, I knew what news that was, even though I didn’t know. The first chance I got, I was going to go to the dance and wear out my shoes too. I’d learn later that Hank had died in the backseat of a car on New Year’s Day, kept my fingers crossed, hoped it wasn’t true. But it was true. It was like a great tree had fallen. Hearing about Hank’s death caught me squarely on the shoulder. The silence of outer space never seemed so loud. Intuitively I knew, though, that his voice would never drop out of sight or fade away – a voice like a beautiful horn.

Much later, I’d discover that Hank had been in tremendous pain all of his life, suffered from severe spinal problems – that the pain must have been torturous. In light of that, its all the more astonishing to hear his records. It’s almost like he defied the laws of gravity. The Luke the Drifter record, I just about wore out. That’s the one where he sings and recites parables, like the Beatitudes. I could listen to the Luke the Drifter record all day and drift away myself, become totally convinced in the goodness of man. When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege.

In time, I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars and they had to be there. Even his words – all of his syllables are divided up so they make perfect mathematical sense. You can learn a lot about the structure of songwriting by listening to his records, and I listened to them a lot and had them internalized. In a few years’ time, Robert Shelton, the folk and jazz critic for the New York Times, would review one of my performances and would says something like ‘resembling a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik… he breaks all the rules in songwriting, except that of having something to say”. The rules, whether Shelton knew it or not, were Hank’s rules, but it wasn’t like I ever meant to break them. It’s just that what I was trying to express was beyond the circle. “

According to Dylan, Williams (and other singers) are almost a religion to him.

“Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book,” Bob Dylan said in 1997, after the release of his album “Time Out of Mind” which was his first album of original material in seven years. Dylan said “All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from `Let Me Rest on that Peaceful Mountain’ to `Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing `I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too”.

All readers are probably also aware that Dylan has covered numerous Williams tunes over the years, most famously in a memorable scene in the film Don’t Look Back.

Woody Guthrie was also a major influence, and it’s not hard to discern his influence in Dylan’s work. The influence of William’s however, is much harder to pinpoint. Dylan did of course “go country” back in the late 60s, producing several albums – especially Nashville Skyline – that had a distinct country flavor. Yet I don’t hear a lot of Williams in any of that work. Dylan’s country sound is really his own. I almost wouldn’t call it country really. I’ve listened to country music off and on for my entire life, and I’ve never heard anything else that sounds much like Nashville Skyline. It certainly doesn’t sound anything like the hard country of Hank Williams.

I do, however, hear the influence of William’s alter ego, Luke the Drifter. Williams had written some spoken word, deeply moralistic songs that were popular at the time. The business folk were none to please with the idea of Williams releasing this kind of material instead of his popular stuff. So instead, it was decided that Luke the Drifter would record those tracks. Odd decision, given that everybody knew immediately they were the same person.

Below is an example of one of “Luke’s” songs.

Dylan has said that he was a big fan of the Drifter. I’ll repeat part of the quote above from Chronicles.

The Luke the Drifter record, I just about wore out. That’s the one where he sings and recites parables, like the Beatitudes. I could listen to the Luke the Drifter record all day and drift away myself, become totally convinced in the goodness of man.

Anyway, I hear a distinct similarity between the Drifter’s style and Dylan’s The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. Seem pretty clear to me. Both are plain, unadorn, spoken word. Both are deeply moralistic. Other than that though, I don’t hear any other specific influences. Of course, Williams wasn’t the only singer of spoken-word moralistic tales, so it’s possible Dylan picked it up elsewhere. But given his repeated statements about William’s influence, and specifically about the Drifter, it seems pretty likely.

Anybody else out there hear other possible influence? Add a comment below.

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