Monday, October 5, 2009

Hank Williams: Cool Water

SONG Cool Water


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.

All day I face the barren waste without a taste of water
Cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water
Cool water

The nights are cool and I'm a fool, each star's a pool of water
Cool water
But with the dawn I'll wake and yawn and carry on to water
Cool water

Keep a-movin' Dan
Don't you listen to him Dan
He's a devil not a man
And he spreads the burning sand with water
Dan can't you see
That big green tree
Where the water's runnin' free
And it's waiting there for me and you
Cool water

The shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for water
Cool water
And way up there He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's water
Cool water

Dan's feet are sore, he yearning for just one thing more than water
Cool water
Like me, I guess, he'd like to rest where there's no quest for water
Cool water
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.


  1. Interesting. I never heard the Hank Williams version of this before. I'd heard the song enough when I was a kid - Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Sons of the Pioneers, and even (of all people) Burl Ives all sang it. Thanks for the opportunity to hear ol' Hank sing it!

  2. I also didn't know this version--mostly knew this one from Sons of the Pioneers. This is a very good version--I believe it's significantly slower in tempo than the Sons of Pioneers. As you mentioned, the spare background, without the harmony singing, also gives it a more stark treatment.

  3. This might be the only Hank Williams track that's longer than four minutes. He really reached back for this one -- as I wrote, found something in it that suited him perfectly.

    Roy, I know someone whose mother dated Burl Ives back in the Forties. She knew Woody, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, all of them.

  4. Hank Williams is my favourite singer. Heard this song sung by Slim Whitman before. Glad to hear the version sung by Hank Williams.

    Thank you for the post.