Dr. David Anderson: Making Your Cheatin’ Heart a part of history
Dr. David Anderson is a historian and scholar with strong personal and professional interests in the history of country music, particularly that of Hank Williams. In late February, Oxford University Press published The Hank Williams Reader, which David co-edited with two other highly accomplished country music scholars – Patrick Huber (Missouri S&T) and Steve Goodson (University of West Georgia). The book contains over 60 of the most important articles, assorted writings, and documents on Hank Williams, along with a lengthy introduction and introductory notes to each chapter and each of the selections.
They designed the book to be much more than a conventional biography or mere collection of articles. By tracing Williams’ increasing posthumous popularity from his premature death at the age of twenty-nine years old in January 1953 to the present, it illustrates something much more significant, which David describes as the literary process by which a popular entertainer becomes an American icon. David noted, “When Williams died, he may have been a riveting live performer with a string of hit records and a skillful composer of numerous country and pop tunes, but no one at the time predicted that his popularity would extend more than a few years beyond his death. Yet, as the years passed, his reputation continued to grow, thanks in part to journalists, historians, family members, and even writers of fiction, whose literary output helped Williams attain the status of one of America’s most beloved musical artists. Thus, our book traces what we term as Williams’ ‘transfiguration’ from a relatively well-known popular entertainer to an individual of legendary proportions.”
David became a fan of Hank Williams at a young age thanks to his mother’s interest in popular music. David said, “During the early 1950s, while a teenager in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my mother would buy music fan magazines that contained lyrics to popular songs. She would leaf through the pages of these magazines with a pair of scissors in her hand, cutting out the lyrics to her favorite songs, and then pasting them into a spiral notebook, which she kept with her after her marriage to my father. I remember in the evenings she would pull out the notebook and teach me to sing these songs, which included several of Hank Williams’ most famous tunes, such as ‘Jambalaya,’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ By the time I was six years old, thanks to my mother’s patient tutelage, I knew all these songs by heart. I remember fondly that when I was seven years old, she took me and my sisters to the local movie theater to see Your Cheatin’ Heart – a biopic that starred George Hamilton as Hank Williams. Although Your Cheatin’ Heart was a cheaply produced picture intended for southern drive-in theaters, I thought it was the best film ever made, mainly because it brought Hank Williams to life by actually showing him singing some his best-known songs–or rather it showed George Hamilton lip-synching these songs to a soundtrack provided by Hank Williams son Randall, better known today as Hank Williams, Jr.”
As David was working on the Hank Williams Reader, his mother passed away. But there is no question that she inspired David’s interest in Hank Williams and in all forms of popular music. She and David’s father were pleased that David became a historian and both supported his decision to pursue a doctorate degree. Both were somewhat surprised that a college history professor could actually publish a book on Hank Williams or, for that matter, produce the article on Dale Hawkins, a native-born North Louisianan who recorded the classic rock ‘n’ roll song, “Susie Q,” an article David co-wrote for another book on popular music history titled Shreveport Sounds in Black and White.
David developed an interest in American “social history” while an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He learned that it consisted of the study of ordinary people who were the working-class Americans whose lives and experiences were often ignored in conventional history books. David’s master’s thesis was written about the copper workers in Ely, Nevada, and when he pursued his doctorate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, David wrote his dissertation on automotive parts workers in east-central Indiana.
On one occasion, David combined his interest in labor and business history with his interest in Hank Williams and country music when he co-wrote an article on the life of Hank Williams’ father, a log train engineer in southern Alabama. Hank immortalized his father in “The Log Train,” the last song Hank Williams ever recorded—incidentally, in the studio of Shreveport’s KWKH radio station. David said, “Williams, I learned, forged an important personal and professional relationship with North Louisiana. Before he became a fixture on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he became a star in 1948-1949 as a performer on the stage of Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, a popular “barn dance” radio variety show broadcasted on KWKH; he married a woman from Bossier City and ended his career back on the Hayride during the last months of his life. The Hayride also provided Elvis Presley and other country music and rock ‘n’ roll stars with their first big break in the music business. For me, the Hayride serves as a reminder about the Ark-La-Tex region’s rich social and cultural history, of which I’ll admit I knew little about prior to joining the faculty at Louisiana Tech.”
David has found his home in a part of the country with a rich social history. We are most fortunate that David has a passion for bringing that history back to life with his writings. And our students are fortunate to learn about our region’s rich history from one of our best historians and scholars. I will write more about David’s interests and activities in a future blog post.