There’s a tense dinner table scene in the gripping film “Whiplash” (2014) where aspiring musician Andrew is challenged by family members who question his ambition to be the next Charlie Parker:
Andrew: “I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success.”
Jim: “Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success.”
Andrew: “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34, and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”
Such may summarize the songwriter’s unique place in the universe.
Anyway, smack-dab-in-the-middle of my 3-month Apple Music trial period – (Digression #1: Anyone out there have any advice on whether I should ultimately buy in?) – I wanted to check out a new album by Yo La Tenga called Stuff Like That There. I was keenly interested to hear their cover version of my all-time favorite song about Friday: The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love.” (BTW, It’s good.)
With the album playing on in Shuffle mode as I perused the morning paper, my absent-minded ear caught itself admiring another classic cover: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams (Recorded/released in 1949). Talk about perfection.
If Vanity Fair ever approaches me to do the Proust Questionnaire, I’m pretty sure I know how I will answer the question about “Which talent would you most like to have?” Answer: “To be able to write awesome songs.”
Stevie Van Zandt (Springsteen sidekick, member of the E Street Band) had this to say about songwriting: “To have impact in two minutes and thirty seconds — that’s very hard to do. It’s much easier to write Pink Floyd’s The Wall than it is to write ‘Louie Louie.’”
I know what he means. As great an album as The Wall is – 23X Platinum(!), 5th highest selling album of all time – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a century from now there will be more people humming that simple riff by The Kingsmen than there will be people listening to “Brick in the Wall.”
Perhaps the truest indicator of a song’s greatness is: a) the number, b) the quality, and c) the diversity of the musicians who choose to cover it. With that standard, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is indeed in rarified air. Setting aside anybody-who-is-anybody-in-country music, check out the range of this list:
– B.J. Thomas (remember “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”?);
– Elvis Presley, who said at the time, “I’d like to sing a song that’s probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard.”
– Andy Williams (Of “Moon River” fame);
– Al Green (T.H.E. Reverend Al Green, gospel and soul extraordinaire);
– Tommy James & The Shondells (Remember “Crimson & Clover”?);
– Dean Martin (Rat Packing Sinatra sidekick);
– Bob Dylan, who said, “I didn’t have to experience anything that Hank did to know what he was singing about. I’d never heard a robin weep, but could imagine it and it made me sad.”
– Cassandra Wilson (One of the great jazz vocalists of our time);
– The Cowboy Junkies (a haunting cover);
– Little Richard (Yeah, He of “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” fame);
– Keb Mo (modern blues exemplar);
– Bill Frisell w/Ron Carter (jazz royalty).
And that’s the short list.
Oddly enough, the song was originally released as the “B” side to what turned out to be another Hank Williams chestnut: “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In it.” Apparently, the top brass favored more upbeat songs for “A” sides. (Digression #2: Any of you millennials out there wondering about this “A” and “B” side stuff, ask your parents… or grandparents.)
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” went on to earn countless accolades, including ranking in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time at #111. Interestingly enough, it also holds the distinction of being the oldest song on the list.
Onward, Malcolm Gauld