Song 194: Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (1948)

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Knowing about Hank Williams’s drug and alcohol addictions makes listening to “I Saw the Light” a somewhat dissonant experience. Of course, anybody can have religious convictions, especially those with demons to exorcise, and I have no reason to doubt that Williams is sincere in this song, which references Bible verses (from Revelations: “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.”). It’s just an interesting contrast.

Williams’s dependence on booze and morphine also seems incongruous with his clean looks and even cleaner sound. Unlike Johnny Cash, whose voice contained multitudes of regrets and sleepless nights, Hank Williams’s voice was the very definition of clarity. On every song, backed by musicians playing jauntily and mightily, Williams sang with focus and confidence.

Of course, “I Saw the Light” is in many ways keeping with the personal life of Hank Williams. “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin,” he sings at the song’s start. As if driven by the Lord’s will, however, Williams sounds so sure of his newfound happiness. In reality, his vices were nowhere near gone–his death five years later was aided by the very addictions he seems to have disavowed.

“I Saw the Light,” then, sounds heartbreakingly ironic 60 years after the life of Hank Williams came to a premature end. At the time it must have sounded like a man forever changed; now, it sounds like a a phase of good behavior. All along, however, it has remained the sound of belief, no matter the backstory. What we believe and what we do are often different things.

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