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Sometime in 2008, we should see a CD collection of new Hank Williams songs - or at least songs started by Williams before his death on that fateful New Years' Day in 1953 - a compilation produced by Bob Dylan and possibly including at least one Dylan contribution. The still not officially announced project is using as its lodestone a portfolio of 35 unrecorded songs that were found in Williams' briefcase after his death, many with complete lyrics, but all without music. According to reports, back in 2004 Sony/BMG and the administrators of the Hank Williams estate approved "the idea of Bob Dylan taking a run at putting music" to those lyrics, as one of the lawyers put it, and the songs were sent off to Dylan.
The project apparently went on a back-burner for the next few years, or Dylan was unhappy with whatever results came from his doing the work solo, because nothing more was heard about the Briefcase Songs* until 2007 when Paste Magazine published an interview with Dominic Suchyta, a bassist with the band Steppin' In It, and a friend of Jack White. Suchyta noted that he had recently backed White, the man who seemed to be Dylan's new best friend in 2007, on a Williams song called You Know That I Know for the Dylan project.
You know that I know that you ain't no good
You wouldn't tell the truth if you could
Lying is a habit you practice wherever you go
You may fool the rest of the world, but you know that I know
"... it was a Hank Williams lyric sheet that Jack put to music and edited a bit,” says Suchyta. “[Dylan] sent most of or all of the unfinished tunes and [Jack] picked this one to finish."
According to Suchtya, other participants recording the Hank Williams songs include Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, and later reports have added Lucinda Williams and Alan Jackson to the group. Suchtya also speculated in the interview that Dylan himself had recorded at least one tune for the project during the 2006 Modern Times sessions, a guess that was later reported as fact in follow-up articles. But whether Dylan actually has recorded any of the Briefcase Songs - or will be recording any of them during the recording sessions he's rumored to have planned for 2008 - still remains to be seen, or to be heard.
There's a nice parallel between the Briefcase Songs and the two Mermaid Avenue collections, the 1998 and 2000 albums showcasing a group of till-then unheard lyrics of Woody Guthrie, with music provided by Billy Bragg and Wilco. As readers of Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One remember him writing,
"On one of my visits, Woody had told me about some boxes of songs and poems that he had written that had never been seen or set to melodies - that they were stored in the basement of his house in Coney Island and that I was welcome to them...
I found the house...One of Woody's kids, Arlo...told the babysitter to let me in. Arlo was probably about ten or twelve years old and didn't know anything about any manuscripts locked in the basement....
Forty years later, these lyrics would fall into the hands of Billy Bragg and the group Wilco and they would put melodies to them, bring them to full life and record them. It was all done under the direction of Woody's daughter Nora. These performers probably weren't even born when I had made that trip out to Brooklyn".
Dylan - as well as Bruce Springsteen and even Guthrie's son, Arlo - all reportedly later campaigned to get their hands on Woody's lyrics. But Nora Guthrie ultimately made the decision to turn the songs over Bragg, who she contacted on her own. Although one published report has it that there was a falling out between Nora Guthrie and Dylan that influenced her decision, it's more likely that her comment in the liner notes of Mermaid Avenue that she wanted to bring Woody's music to a younger generation of listeners is closer to the truth. Certainly if Dylan, Springsteen, or even Arlo had taken on the job, it would have been a much different project, and would have had a vastly different audience.
When I first heard about the Dylan project in 2007, I thought the Hank Williams songs were from the rediscovered "Lost Songbook," that came to light in 2006, after two collectors - and the proprietors of the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame - revealed in the Chicago Sun-Times that they had purchased it. But that tattered, brown notebook is something different - containing twenty handwritten, unpublished Hank Williams lyrics and song fragments from 1947 through 1949, seventeen of which were never recorded.
While nobody disputes its legitimacy, the provenance of that notebook is much murkier than the songs from Hank's briefcase. A woman claiming to have various country music-related items, including "some Hank Williams things," offered the notebook up for sale, although she mistakenly believed it had belonged to Roy Orbison. However, the two collectors recognized the songbook as the same one photographed for the book Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway, and purchased it for a reported $1500.
How the notebook - which collectors have valued for as much as a quarter-million dollars - disappeared from the Acuff-Rose archives, where it was photographed in 1998, is unknown. One theory has it that it was thrown out or misplaced after Sony/BMG bought Acuff-Rose in 2002. Sony/BMG claims that it was stolen, and in fact prosecuted the woman - who turned out to be a janitor at the Sony building and stated in court that she found the notebook in a dumpster - and one of the collectors for theft. The criminal case was dismissed in March 2007 for lack of evidence, although Sony is now pursuing a civil lawsuit to recover what it still claims is its property.
Hank Williams' notebook currently is being kept under lock-and-key at the Sumner County, Tennessee courthouse.
*Briefcase Songs is a placeholder title I created for the purposes of this article and is not the title of the still-announced Dylan project.
Sources: Chronicles: Volume One, pages 99-100. The clip is from the audio version of the book, read by Sean Penn.
The Chicago Sun-Times, September 3, 2006 - Lost and Found: Hank Williams Lost Notebook.
Various news reports on the ongoing saga of the lost notebook.
The Hank Williams radio show excerpts are from the second episode of Williams' first syndicated series - The Health and Happiness show - recorded in October 19 and 49. Several of the shows can be downloaded from the Internet archive, and all eight shows are available in CD and MP3 format at Amazon.
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