Next Saturday June 17th would be my father’s birthday. I don’t remember him. I was two years old when he died, but I think of him often, a lot more so as I’ve grown older. It seems he’s never far from my thoughts. Over the years I heard a lot about him. Of course he was loved by his family and he exemplified love as a devoted son, brother and uncle. People said he was kind-hearted with a great sense of humor.
Described as tall, good-looking, broad-shouldered and physically strong he was also blessed with musical talent. It was said he was a gifted singer, well versed at playing guitar and a songwriter.
My dad, like his nine other siblings who lived into adulthood, had a rough life growing up. Coming from a broken home, they struggled through the years of the depression. At a very young age they often had to fend for themselves… just to eat. And on occasion some found themselves at odds with the law.
In talking about those days and their tough, undisciplined childhood an uncle described one of his brothers as “one rough character, eleven years old and packing a thirty-eight revolver.” That young boy, through his own determination, overcame those beginnings, and even before the war, was well on the road to turning his life around. He would go on to honorably serve his country as a combat soldier. He was one of the most respected, admired and finest men I’ve ever known.
My father’s devotion and charity toward his mother is especially worthy of mention. His writings to her were the stuff Mother’s Day cards are made of. I’m touched to the core reading the letters he wrote to his mother shortly before his death. At the time he didn’t know he was dying with only a few months to live. Always accompanied with a few dollars his heartfelt letters made it certain… he was a devoted son to his mother and loved her dearly. Were I given the gift to spend an afternoon visiting with anyone living or otherwise; be it a renowned philosopher or inventor, an historical figure, a religious or world leader, without hesitation, I’d choose to spend that afternoon with my father.
I always assumed my father’s gift for singing and playing the guitar were something only a few family and friends experienced. It wasn’t until a few years ago I learned he frequently performed on-stage in country music bands at the local dives and bars around Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. I had no idea he performed publicly like that. Surprisingly, with all the stories over all these years, it was something I’d never heard before.
Another cousin was eight years old when he died. She wrote: “I have fond memories of your father coming to our house to visit when I was a little girl. I remember he visited us a lot. I always thought he was the ‘best looking.’ He was always my ‘favorite uncle.’
Joking and laughing and always a smile on his face, he had a funny sense of humor showing his fondness for children. I remember he would bring his guitar and we would ‘sing.’”
Yet another cousin was sixteen when my father passed away. He recalled my dad livingwith his family in the late 1940’s and spent time with him later as a teenager in the early 50’s. He said he remembered my father as a “good guy” he “really liked him, everybody liked him. He was “tough, really tough.” My cousin remembered a friend of my father’s saying, “he was the best-looking guy I’d ever seen.”
There’s a song I’ve always liked, said to have been written, recorded and sung by the legendary Hank Williams in 1949. Strange I think that it touched me in the way it did even as a young boy, and long before I appreciated my father or his talents. Some say it’s the saddest song they’ve ever heard, Cash and Elvis were among them. It’s been recorded by hundreds of artists, from Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash to John Waite, Al Green and Dean Martin to the Cowboy Junkies. Even the great Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw recorded the song in 1976. It went on to become a top 20 hit for Bradshaw. Titled I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, my favorite version was recorded by Elvis (see the video below). Now, here’s the kicker…
I was told on several occasions, by at least three or four of my dad’s siblings, that in no uncertain terms, they knew — one said, he had no doubts — it was my father who wrote that song. They spoke of hearing him frequently sing it beginning in the early 1940s. To the day they died they honestly believed somehow my dad’s song found it’s way into the hands of Hank Williams.
When my father would hear it on the radio and the juke boxes, in the years that followed, he’d just shrug off it’s origins. Being a country boy, and especially in the early 50’s, he was no doubt naive to the song’s value. He was just proud to have known how far the song had gone, and how many hearts it had touched.
The rest, as they say — at least for the Williams family — is history. Things like that were known to happen in those days, they sometimes still happen today. Of course we’ll never know for sure, not in this life anyway, but it’s an interesting story nevertheless and just the kind of story I like sharing with friends.
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
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry