“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds to blue to fly—”
While writing lesson plans for our unit on Country music, I knew that I needed to include Hank Williams on the list of essential artists of the genre. Hank’s contribution to not only Country music, but Music (with a capital “M”) in general, cannot be overstated. The only question was how my young students would respond to songs written 70 years ago by a raging alcoholic who drank himself to death before his 30th birthday.
Just to clarify, before anyone calls for my firing, Williams’ rampant substance abuse was NOT part of my lesson plan. However, the overwhelming sadness that informed Hank’s songwriting was.
One of the main reasons people love Country music, I explained to my kindergarten, first, and second grade students, is because it is so relatable. When Country artists sing about love, loss, American values, small-town life, and such, we understand where they’re coming from because we also have many of those same feelings.
While my students enjoyed listening to songs by the Carter Family, Bob Wills, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Brandi Carlile, and Chris Stapleton, it was Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that made the biggest impression.
Before we listened to Hank’s 1949 hit single, I told my students that when people want to express how they are feeling deep down inside, sometimes they will talk with a friend. Other times they may paint a picture, write a poem, or dance. Hank, I explained, wrote and sang songs to express himself.
“Sometimes Hank wrote happy songs,” I continued, “but he often wrote sad songs because that’s the way he felt a lot of the time.” When I played the song, several kids said it was so sad that it made them want to cry. I told them Hank would have been pleased to hear that.
“You and Hank just made a connection,” I said. “That’s what music is all about. People who lived 70 years apart can make real, meaningful connections through music. And Country music, in particular, is really good for helping people understand each other.”
The kids seemed to get it. So, after listening to the rest of the artists on our playlist, we circled back to Ol’ Hank. “Now friends, I would like to try something. I want us to sing Hank’s song—together.” I called-up a video of the song that included the lyrics at the top of the screen. “Remember, this is a song about feeling so sad that even the sound of birds singing in the trees can’t cheer you up. Let’s keep that in mind as we give it a go.”
“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry
Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry”
After singing the first verse, I spied a student or two wiping tears from their eyes. As the song continued, I saw several children begin to weep. By the end of the third and final verse, all but a few of the kids were fully sobbing.
At first, I was worried that I might have made a terrible mistake asking vulnerable children to sing such an emotionally powerful song, but then I noticed most of them were actually smiling through their tears. They were not crying because they were sad, they were crying because they had made a deeply meaningful connection to the heart and soul of a fellow human being through music.
Theirs were tears of joy—as were mine.
The scene repeated itself in almost every one of my 26 classes. Over the course of the next four days, I cried more times than I had in the previous four years. And it felt wonderful.
At the conclusion of class, I said, “What you’ve just experienced here today is one of the most beautiful things you can ever experience. That, my friends, is the magic of music.”
And that, dear reader, is why I love being a music teacher.