Every now and then, my inner-city radar picks up something that is not quite right. In these moments, my subconscious throttles my awareness because the atmosphere is wrong- something is about to happen; something peripheral is asserting itself. The circumstances do not match the circumstances; be ready to react!
I was picking up some odds and ends at a Rite Aid Pharmacy in Washington Heights right under the George Washington Bridge. I was comparing the price per ounce of various products and wondering if Rite-Aid’s version of Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser was truly as meritorious as its box proclaimed when my nervous system went into high alert. I was particularly startled because nobody was standing anywhere near me. A split second later, I realized why I had suddenly dropped a can of Ajax and looked up at the ceiling: it was the steel guitar.
Instead of hearing muzak, hip-hop, pop, salsa, or smooth jazz on the Rite Aid P.A. system, I was actually hearing a steel guitar. Not just any steel guitar, mind you- this was one of the most recognizable and beautifully recorded steel guitar licks of all time. My jaw dropped. Here, in a drugstore at West 179th Street and Broadway, Hank Williams Senior‘s original posthumous 1953 hit recording, Your Cheatin’ Heart, was filling the air.
At first, I didn’t quite know what to do; this wasn’t supposed to be happening. It’s not so unusual for me to dream musical incongruities, but I was certain I was perfectly awake. The music seemed slightly louder than usual for a drugstore; I glanced around to see if anyone else detected anything unusual. The women coming down my aisle browsed and conversed in Spanish as if they heard nothing but their own voices. I stood still, listening, involuntarily and silently mouthing a word or two as Hank entered with his inimitable vocals:Your cheatin’ heart Will make you weep You’ll cry and cry And try to sleep
I decided I’d better continue shopping before two security guards (looking my way) mistakenly decided I was the anomaly that demanded immediate attention.
I made some swift decisions about cleaning agents and moved to the next aisle. A young Rite Aid stocker stacked Cheerios boxes and mumbled along, dropping syllables and consonants and phonetically rendering the instrumental breaks: “Slee’ won’ come. . . Bearw! Bearw! Bearw!. . .whole night through. . .Hmmm cheatin’ heart. . . . will tell on you!” Although this made the scene a little weirder, something about the nonchalance and absentmindedness of his singing encouraged my own mind to drift again.
When did I first hear this song, anyway? I don’t even know. It’s something that’s always been there like the sun or the moon or gravity. . . my father occasionally used to sing it and accompany himself on guitar; I used to spin a 45 RPM record of it that I either permanently borrowed from him or got from a garage sale. In Texas during the seventies, the song could still make an occasional appearance on the radio, at a pizza parlor, or on the country music shows that were a mainstay of primetime weekend television.
Brushing aside an impulse to ponder the song’s sudden reappearance for any omens or personal relevance, I envisioned the music filling a darkened bar or a diner in Harlem almost sixty years ago . . .
Legendary be-bop musician Charlie Parker was notorious for pumping Harlem jukeboxes full of nickels as he punched in requests for Hank Williams tunes. His friends ribbed him for it:
“Bird, how can you listen to that hillbilly music?! It’s so corny!”
“Listen to the words, man; do you listen to the words?!”
Parker died only a few years after Williams, but I’m sure he spun this record many times. I’ve never quite managed to connect the chromatic complexity of a chart like Parker’s “Hot House” with the earthy directness of a three-chord Williams ballad, and once again I struggled to build an aesthetic link from one to the other.
But I couldn’t bridge that gap, nor could I imagine what Charlie Parker might have been thinking as he silently brooded over his beer and listened to Hank’s sad story unfold because I was becoming aware of some strange sounds emanating from deep within the stock room. Once again, I had the sense that something wasn’t right, but this time I couldn’t identify the sounds; I only knew that they were vaguely human.
Then it hit me: somebody is yodeling. Badly.
The sporadic muffled yodels unpredictably joined the song at various intervals. Either somebody in the stockroom was loving the music and having a great time exulting in it, or he was mercilessly mocking it and Williams’ tendency to pass fluidly and frequently between his head and chest voice in the great American passaggio tradition of artists like Jimmy Rogers.
-Or worse: maybe this whole scene was the brainchild of some sadistic manager who was using Hank Williams’ music for evil. I tried to stifle the image of a bound, blue-and-red-uniformed Rite-Aid employee being tortured and forced to yodel along to an endless-repeat cycle of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” until he finally breaks into a chorus of “Please Release Me,” and is allowed to flee the building and drown his sorrows at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, where he can listen to an Upstarts! group perform a sophisticated, Charlie Parker retrospective set curated by Jazz@Lincoln Center after which there will be absolutely no Hank Williams tunes playing on the nonexistent jukebox.
Somebody even deeper within the bowels of Rite Aid laughed and bantered happily. The yodeling continued.
I realized this was not a yodel of duress. . . whether exulting or ridiculing or merely groaning because he had to endure somebody else’s favorite music, the employee in the back was definitely having a good time. Like it or not, great music of any kind refuses to be ignored.
No longer on alert, I savored the moment. In twenty-two years of living in New York City, I had never heard any Hank Williams music in any store, and it will likely never happen again, unless the guys in the Rite Aid stockroom have a deep and abiding love for timeless music or a penchant for quirky inside jokes that help to make tedious working circumstances considerably more tolerable. Bring it home, Hank!When tears come down, Like falling rain, You’ll toss around, And call my name, You’ll walk the floor, The way I do, Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you…
After the steel guitar tag faded away, a forgettable, more contemporary country song softly wafted through the P.A. system and was appropriately ignored by all, as the scene began to resemble any other chain drugstore in New York City.
-Some brilliant producer needs to bring back the steel guitar and the yodel.
Happy Labor Day weekend!