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Hank Williams, Sr. is so legendary that the real person almost doesn't exist anymore. Every detail of his life, from his childhood to his death, has been viewed through a magnifying glass. His "calling card," instead of being about who he really was, is about people's image of him. Hank was one of the earliest big pop stars in American music, and in some ways, he helped define the world of pop celebrity.
Williams was a superstar before there really were superstars. He was around before the days of celebrity magazines or national tabloids. There are only a couple of video recordings ever made of him. And there had never been a music star like Elvis (he would rise to stardom just after Hank's time), Bob Dylan or Beyoncé—mass media just wasn't far-reaching enough yet. To get into Hank Williams you had to either see him live, buy his record, or hear his music on the radio. It was downright impressive to have such a big following at that time. The mourning and the growing public obsession with Hank Williams made him "one of America's first celebrity death-cult heroes."
These days, celebrity death-cult heroes seem like they're a dime a dozen. Literally: we know dozens of stories about celebrities who died tragically young. Why are we so fascinated with celebrity, addiction, and death? Why do people love tragic fallen stars? The iconic image of Hank Williams may be a part of the source.
Hank Williams has been quoted as saying "If a song can't be written in 20 minutes, it ain't worth writing." But people have been trying to imitate and recreate Hank's kind of music writing for decades now, so Shmoop tried to find out a little more about how Hank wrote. Aside from moving fast, what made him such a brilliant songwriter? So brilliant that he was recognized with something as big and official as a Pulitzer Prize nearly 60 years after his death?
Even though a lot of it sounds pretty simple, country music writing is more than just a few easy rhymes and some complaining. "Your Cheatin' Heart," and most of Hank's other writing, does more than just rhyme. We did some research and found out that songs like this one are actually extra-catchy because they are "hooked up." "Hooked up" is a country way of saying that Hank uses lots of consonance and assonance in his writing, giving the lines the feeling of being all hooked together in a web of connected sounds and tones. Writers have been "hooking up" songs and poems for centuries, Hank Williams seemed to have an innate sense of the poetic technique.
Confused? Try what we tried: First, read the lyrics to "Your Cheatin' Heart" out loud. Feel how it forces you to speak with a certain rhythm. Notice that there are exactly four syllables in every line of the song. There are eight lines in every verse, and there are exactly four verses. The number of syllables in the song (32x4) is also 2 to the seventh power: exactly 128 syllables. Like a sonnet or a haiku, the poem follows a rigid, almost mathematical structure.
But somehow, even with a rigid structure, the song has a flow to it. That's where consonance and assonance come in. Consonance just means repeating consonant sounds in words. Alliteration is a type of consonance in which the sound repeats at the beginning of a word ("Magnificent Mile" and "Wayne's World" are a couple of good alliterated titles.) But consonance can happen anywhere in a word: beginning, middle, or end.
For example, we noticed that "Your Cheatin' Heart" deals with lots of "l" sounds at the end of words. Go through and count how many "l"s (will, you'll, whole etc) appear at the ends of words in each verse. We counted exactly 5 in the first verse, 6 in the second, 5 in the third, and 6 in the fourth (which is a repeat of the second verse). These words don't necessarily rhyme with each other. "Will tell," for example, is a use of consonance, but it's not rhyme or even alliteration. Williams ties every verse together not just with a rhyme, but also by hooking up the verses with repeating consonant sounds.
Now let's move to assonance. Assonance is more like rhyming, because it involves repeating vowel sounds within words. Hank's rhymes are assonant (weep/sleep, through/you, and so on). But he also uses assonance in the middle of lines. In the first verse, the long "e" from "cheatin'" appears no less than five times. In the second verse, we hear the "aw" sound from "falling" five times (falling, toss, call, walk, heart). In the third verse, we noticed long "i" sounds (pine/time) and "ooh" sounds (you/you'll/blue/you) tying it together. And, tying it all together, the fourth verse echoes the second.
There are even more connections—assonant and consonant—between the first and third verses. Read the song aloud again, or sing along to it. What do you hear? (If you're stuck, start with "cry" and look for similar sounds).
"Your Cheatin' Heart" is so hooked up that this activity could go on and on. But it's important to understand, because all this "hooking up" gives the song a deep ring. Compare this song, for example, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet, "How Do I Love Thee". That poem is "hooked up" that parts of it are unforgettable. (In fact, you probably know the rest of the line after "How do I love thee," don't you? Say the rest out loud and listen for the double assonance). When people wonder what makes Hank's songs seem so simple—but so good—it's actually because Hank was basically writing form poetry.