About the song
If you are a fan of Elvis Presley, you might have heard his rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in his 1973 show Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite. The song, which Elvis introduced as “probably the saddest song I ever heard”, was originally written and recorded by Hank Williams in 1949. It is considered one of the most classic American songs ever written, and has been covered by a wide range of musicians. In this blog post, we will explore the history and meaning of this song, and why it resonates with so many people.
Hank Williams was one of the most influential country music singers and songwriters of the 20th century. He had a distinctive voice and style that blended hillbilly, honky-tonk, blues and gospel elements. He wrote songs that expressed intense, personal emotions with country’s traditional plainspoken directness, a then-revolutionary approach that has come to define the genre. He also suffered from alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic back pain and marital problems, which contributed to his early death at the age of 29.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is one of his most famous songs, and also one of his most melancholic. According to some sources, he wrote the song originally intending the words be spoken rather than sung, as he had done on several of his Luke the Drifter recordings. The inspiration for the song came from the title to a different song Williams spotted on a list of forthcoming MGM record releases. The song was recorded on August 30, 1949, at Herzog Studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. Williams was backed by members of the Pleasant Valley Boys: Zeke Turner (lead guitar), Jerry Byrd (steel guitar) and Louis Innis (rhythm guitar), as well as Tommy Jackson (fiddle) and Ernie Newton (bass).
The song was released as the B-side to the blues “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”, because up-tempo numbers were deemed more appropriate for the jukebox trade than melancholy ballads. The single reached number four on the country chart in 1949. The song has been identified with Williams’s musical legacy, and has been widely praised by critics and artists alike. In the 2003 documentary The Road to Nashville, singer k.d. lang stated: “I think ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is one of the most classic American songs ever written, truly. Beautiful song.” In his autobiography, Bob Dylan recalled: “Even at a young age, I identified with him. 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.”
The song is composed of four verses and a chorus, each consisting of two lines. The lyrics are simple but poetic, using imagery from nature to convey the loneliness and despair of the narrator. The song begins with the sound of a “lonesome winter bird” that is “too blue to fly”. The bird is contrasted with the “midnight train” that is “whining low”, suggesting movement and escape. The second verse introduces the motif of the robin, a symbol of spring and hope, that is weeping because “leaves began to die”. The narrator identifies with the robin’s loss of will to live. The third verse describes the “silence of a falling star” that lights up a “purple sky”. The star is a metaphor for the narrator’s love interest, who has disappeared from his life. The purple sky evokes a sense of mystery and sadness. The chorus repeats the title phrase twice, emphasizing the narrator’s emotional state. The final verse returns to the robin motif, asking if it ever felt “blue” as he does.
The song has a slow tempo and a simple melody that follows a I-VI-IV-V chord progression in C major. The melody is mostly pentatonic, with occasional chromatic notes that add tension and expressiveness. The song has a sparse arrangement that features Williams’s plaintive vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar, steel guitar, fiddle and bass. The steel guitar plays a prominent role in creating the mood of the song, using slides and bends to mimic the sound of crying. The fiddle adds some melodic embellishments and fills in some gaps between the vocal phrases.
The song has been covered by many artists from different genres and styles, such as Johnny Cash, B.J. Thomas, Al Green, Volbeat, Cowboy Junkies, Cassandra Wilson, Tori Amos and Björk. One of the most notable versions was by Elvis Presley, who performed it during his 1973 Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite television special. The show was broadcast live via satellite to various countries, and was seen by close to 1.5 billion people, a global ratings smash. Elvis gave a heartfelt and emotional performance of the song, accompanied by his band and orchestra. He sang the song in a lower key than Williams, and added some vocal improvisations and embellishments. He also changed some of the lyrics, such as “the silence of a falling star” to “the silence of a falling tear”.
The song is a testament to the power and universality of music, and how it can connect people across time and space. It is a song that speaks to the human condition, and the feelings of loneliness and longing that everyone can relate to. It is a song that transcends its genre and origin, and becomes a timeless classic.