With Will and Hank, 'Everything's Okay'

Robert Houk • Sep 9, 2019 at 10:59 PM

I’m always amazed to read that Mark Twain was among those who believe the classic plays and sonnets credited to William Shakespeare may have been penned by someone else.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died in July, was another surprising skeptic of the bard.

Stevens was an Oxfordian — the term given for those who believe the unprecedented literary works attributed to Shakespeare were written by the 17th earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Others claim the Shakespeare’s plays were the work of acclaimed contemporaries, such as Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe.

I say hogwash. As the bard himself states on the inscription of his grave in Holy Trinity Church: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.”

Shakespeare’s themes of betrayal, madness and ill-fated love would no doubt find a following among today’s country music fans. One East Tennessee State University researcher believes Shakespeare would have made a decent living as a lyricist on Music Row.

When Dr. Robert Sawyer, an ETSU professor of English, was asked a decade or so ago by the Shakespeare Association of America to get together papers and a discussion about Shakespeare and the American South to present at a conference in New Orleans, he decided to take a closer look at the bard’s influence below the Mason-Dixon Line.

His scholarly inspection resulted in “Country Matters: Shakespeare and Songs of the American South,” a paper that investigated the many ways Shakespeare’s influence has shown up in country music.

The ETSU professor found a number of examples of Shakespeare or his works referenced in the lyrics of many popular country music songs, including Dolly Parton’s “Romeo,” Diamond Rio’s “This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet” and Lucinda Williams’ “Little Brother, Little Angel.”

Sawyer also used his paper to shed some light on Hank Williams Sr., who is often called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” and “Shakespeare of the Common Man.” He said Willie and Hank shared a talent for putting the common experiences of their lives into prose.

Certainly, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me,” from Shakespeare’s “King Richard III” expresses much the same sentiment as Hank’s “Your cheating heart will tell on you.”

Ken Burns pays homage to Hank Williams Sr. in his new eight-part documentary, “Country Music,” which will debut on PBS on Sunday. Pioneers like Williams, the Carter Family and Dolly Parton tell the story of country music and how it has evolved.

Hank’s spoken word (or talking blues) songs are folk poetry. One of my favorites, which he recorded as Luke the Drifter, is “Everything’s Okay.”

My wife's been sick — the young'ns, too

And I'm durn near — down with the flu

The cow's gone dry — and them hens won't lay

But — we're still a-livin' — so everything's Okay

I’m one who believes Williams deserves the same respect that the 16th-century playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon is given. I’ve visited Shakespeare’s hometown, and have seen a tourist zeal for the place on par with that for Graceland in Memphis.

Elvis may be the king, but lines of tour groups don’t pose for photos in front of his girlfriend’s thatched cottage. And neither Shakespeare nor Elvis could rock a honky tonk like Hank.

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