WRITTEN BY Bob Nolan
PERFORMED BY Hank Williams
APPEARS ON Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings (2009)
Hank Williams knew a terrible secret, and he revealed it in his songs and performances. He knew that humans have a core of fear where love is a fleeting and treacherous thing, where redemption lies in death, and where loneliness and isolation is the human fate. His performance of "Cool Water," Bob Nolan's campfire classic about a man and a mirage,, fearlessly explores this core, leading us on the harrowing journey that ultimately claimed Williams' life.
Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, a fiddle, and the occasional whisper of a pedal steel guitar, Hank’s deliberate phrasing summons a paradoxical sense of inevitability. It’s a bravura performance, arguably Williams’ finest vocal. That a simple ballad like "Cool Water" can evoke this illuminates the mysterious alchemy that occurs when a great artist perceives something in a song that no one else -- not even the song's writer -- senses.
For Williams turns “Cool Water” into a Conradian odyssey, a tale of a parched soul pleading for deliverance only to find that redemption is a mirage. Through this performance, Williams reveals his ultimate fear: That the journey is not the reward, but just another part of the horror. So, while he expresses faith that "He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's water," it's not entirely clear that he believes what he's saying. Williams drives this point home in the final verse, where he discloses that what he really desires is release from the "quest for water." His fear -- and ours -- is that there is no water, merely an endless spiritual search that leads only to disillusion. Better, he thinks, to be released from the search than to discover that it is all a mirage.
Here's a link to a video of Hank's brilliant performance of "Cool Water." It's blurry and the synching is off, but his desperation comes through anyway. It's that powerful a performance.All day I face the barren waste without a taste of waterCool waterOld Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for waterCool waterThe nights are cool and I'm a fool, each star's a pool of waterCool waterBut with the dawn I'll wake and yawn and carry on to waterCool waterKeep a-movin' DanDon't you listen to him DanHe's a devil not a manAnd he spreads the burning sand with waterDan can't you seeThat big green treeWhere the water's runnin' freeAnd it's waiting there for me and youCool waterThe shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for waterCool waterAnd way up there He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's waterCool waterDan's feet are sore, he yearning for just one thing more than waterCool waterLike me, I guess, he'd like to rest where there's no quest for waterCool water