Sunday, July 31, 2016

New revelation

This past Thursday I had a "new revelation" about two songs I've known most of my life -- He Set Me Free by Albert Brumley and I Saw the Light by Hank Williams. We sang the first a lot in church, and, though I'm not a big country music fan, I have heard I Saw the Light plenty of times. It's probably one of Hank Williams's best known songs. These are basically the same song and I've never noticed it! The "new revelation" was only new to me, not new news to others. In Hank Williams: The Biography, the authors wrote:
"...if gospel composer Albert E. Brumley had been a litigious man, his name would be bracketed alongside Hank's in the composer credit. Not only was the melody close to Brumley's 'He Set Me Free', but even the lyrics bore a passing resemblance. The hugely prolific Brumley, best known for 'I'll Fly Away', had published 'He Set Me Free' in a 1939 songbook titled The Gospel Tide, and it had been cut in March 1941 by the Chuck Wagon Gang. Another white gospel group, the Southern Joy Quartet, recorded it shortly before Hank wrote 'I Saw the Light'...'I Saw the Light' wasn't just 'He Set Me Free' with new lyrics, though. It was the prayer of a backslider, who lives in hope of redemption."
Williams's life seems one that never realized that hope. According to the biography, Hank learned to sing in church and attended at least one shape-note singing school at Avant, Alabama (near Georgianna in Butler County). "The hymns Hank learned there [the singing school] and in church every Sunday colored his approach to music as nothing else every would." Williams never discussed the writing of this song, though others have given their versions. He could have easily adapted his words subconsciously to Brumley's tune, and may have deliberately done so. Seems little question that his tune is based on Brumley's tune.

He Set Me Free first stanza and chorus:
Once like a bird in prison I dwelt,
No freedom from my sorrow I felt.
But Jesus came and listened to me,
And, glory to God, He set me free.

He set me free (yes), He set me free (and);
He broke the bonds of prison for me.
I'm glory-bound my Jesus to see,
For glory to God, He set me free.

I Saw the Light first stanza and chorus:
I wandered so aimless--life filled with sin;
I wouldn't let my dear Savior in.
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night,
Praise the Lord, I saw the light!

I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night;
Now I'm so happy no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

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