Tag Archives: falsetto

Shakin’ All Over, number 8: Hank Williams, Howlin’ at the moon

SAO cover lo resI write about this song by US country singer and songwriter Hank Williams in the context of a question: (how) can the voice sing the disabled body? It’s in a chapter called vox crippus, in which, among other versions of mal canto, I present a new reading of falsetto.

Williams, among many other things, from wasted legend to cowboy crip, was a notorious yodeller. Williams’s spina bifida occulta, though generally the least serious of the types of spina bifida birth defect, would give him constant back pain in his short adult years. His hectic and excessive lifestyle in the early 1950s—constant touring, alcoholism, narcotic consumption, poor diet, failed back surgery, regular enforced stays in sanatoriums, and, towards the end, wearing an orthotic ‘chrome-and-leather back brace’ while suffering from chest pains, near impotence and incontinence (he was 29 years old when he died) —did nothing to alleviate and feasibly aggravated his condition. Hank’s bucket had a lot of holes in it.


The single on release at the time of his death in 1952 or 1953 (late New Year’s Eve or early New Year’s Day) was ‘I’ll never get out of this world alive’, which includes a surprisingly (bearing in mind the title) witty lyric that manages to sneak in the observation that, actually, ‘nothing’s ever gonna be all right’. On record, Williams’s musical accompaniment usually included the Hawaiian steel guitar, placed high up in the recording mix so it could be heard on radio and juke boxes, with its ‘sliding whine that …[was] the perfect complement to, and a virtual echo of, the tortured voice’. Indeed the counterpoint of the steel guitar made it ‘the most important element in Hank’s accompaniment, a delicate echo of his mournful cry’ (Hemphill 2005, 31, 97). Williams’s regular use of the yodel in his recordings includes him in seeming satiric self-referential mode on ‘Howlin’ at the moon’ (1951). Here he is in the character of a lovesick howling dog, with an inhuman howl, trying, as the lyric puts it, ‘to quit my doggish ways’. (Williams was, after all, as he sang elsewhere, a man not born but ‘hatched’.) We can hear in the opening line of ‘Howlin’’ not just a nod to the ‘doggish’ narrative to come, nor only too an acknowledgement of the ravages of his excessive and chaotic current personal lifestyle—but also the recognition of the experience of his own corporeality, born with spina bifida: ‘I know there’s never been a man in the awful shape I’m in’. The upper register howl at the ends of verses on ‘Howlin’’ also concludes the song itself, and is—as befits the falsetto—the unnatural, dehumanised, sound of deformity, one more ‘non-voice’ in the high crip realm.

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Santa Claus and Christmas, Robert Wyatt and falsetto

Inspired by this brilliantly witty publicity photo of the English singer Robert Wyatt costumed as Santa Claus I am going to rope together two quite unrelated pieces of research in an act of seasonal generosity.

1. Wyatt isn’t really Santa Claus–he used to be a member of the Communist Party.  It’s false consciousness. And, er, he is well known for his falsetto singing. Ah. Right. So [from work in progress Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability]:

The first form of voice I want to consider is that commonly employed by someone like Robert Wyatt, a drummer who became a man with paraplegia and a wheelchair user and altogether more of a singer following an accident in 1973: falsetto. Wyatt is an intriguing case.  In his own somewhat ambivalent view, the voice is

a very difficult instrument to play, if you’ve only got my technique anyway…. I can’t listen to singers the way I listen to other musicians—I get really embarrassed when singers start doing funny things with their voice that clearly they wouldn’t do in the normal course of your average telephone conversation. In a way I find it a limitation, I’m only comfortable singing fairly close to speech patterns.

Yet while hugging speech patterns in his vocal delivery—and more, pursuing an ostentatious Englishness (that is, non-transatlanticism) in his singing accent from his earliest days in the 1960s with the Wilde Flowers and Soft Machine on—there remains the question of Wyatt’s falsetto. To sound thus is surely ‘doing funny things with the voice’ and a delivery not normally heard in a telephone conversation, after all. So I have in mind the falsetto voices employed by disabled male singers like Wyatt and polio survivor, epileptic, father of disabled children and active fundraiser for disability groups Neil Young, or the visually impaired indigenous Australian singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, or of Curtis Mayfield in his later quadriplegic years. I consider them as sonic signifiers of vulnerability and sensitivity, which are themselves in turn characteristics frequently connected by fans, other musicians and music journalists, as well as by these artists’ marketing people, to their perception of the artists’ disability-related pain and suffering….

2. [Extracted from a 2008 essay, ‘Consumption, “coca-colonisation, cultural resistance–and Santa Claus’]    …the figure at the heart not only of Christmas but of the profound transformation of this festival season, the overweight and elderly superhero, the ‘deity’ of materialism (Daniel Miller’s word), known as Santa Claus, with his amazing sackful of magic powers—flight, shape-shifting, time travel, omniscience… For, as James B. Twitchell has observed, ‘You can keep Christ out of Christmas but not Santa’…. A normative whiteness–the caucasian appearance, white hair and beard, white fur trim–and reassuring masculinity–unthreatening, paternal (Father Christmas) or avuncular–are embodied by representations of Santa Claus. This is so from the early popularisation of a visual image in January 1863 (marking the Christmas 1862 season–perhaps we can say that Santa Claus was also born at Christmas) by Thomas Nast on….

That most obvious of deconstructions, Santa/Satan….

[For contemporary radicals like Adbusters t]o state, or reinstate, the possibility of the carnivalesque irruption of festival was the aim, to be achieved by stepping out of the social frame of consumerist culture and practice. In malls and shopping streets, Zentas rather than Santas began to appear, the idea being for the anarchist–robed for the day in red and white rather than red and black–to project an ironic zen-like calm rejection of frantic consumption, with the handy extra activist practicality that adopting the position of cross-legged meditation was also effectively a sit-down protest blockade. At Buy Nothing Christmas actions, Santa/Zenta Claus reaffirmed his place in ideological and social debates, just as he had been in Nast’s Civil War illustrations of 150 years before.

3. But I am not buying nothing this Christmas–I am buying Robert Wyatt’s Christmas single, a version of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a wonderful world’. After all, it has a great advertising campaign, featuring this chap in a beard….

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