Hank Williams' Last Christmas
December 25, 1952Hank Williams and his 20 year old, newly wed wife, Billie Jean Jones, drove his baby blue Cadillac down from Montgomery to Georgiana, Alabama on the morning of Christmas Eve 1952. According to accounts, he spent the day visiting and attended church with the Skippers (cousins on his mothers side) and even gave an impromptu acoustic performance at Taft's Country Store where he debuted a new song called "The Log Train."
The song is unique in that it gives us an account of the things Hank Williams remembered about his father as a child. During this time, Lon Williams often found work on the railroads with various lumber companies in the area. The song is interesting from a songwriting perspective as this is the only expressly biographical song Hank Williams ever wrote and recorded. He made a demo of the song on December 3, 1952, at KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, an acetate of which was found some twenty years later and has been released on various collections through the years.
On Christmas morning, Hank and Billie Jean left Georgiana and made the 35 mile drive west to McWilliams, Alabama to see his father and his family. Lon Williams had moved to McWilliams after being released from an extended stay in a VA hospital that lasted seven years. He married Ola Till in September of 1942 and the two had one daughter, Leila Williams, in June of 1943 whom Hank would playfully refer to as "Half of my sister."
When Hank and Billie Jean arrived, they found no one home. "We were visiting with mother's first cousin," Leila would later explain. "When we were driving back home a neighbor stopped us and said that Hank had been by the house, but had already left. We didn't have a phone and didn't know he was coming to see us. Daddy looked for Hank at the houses of different relatives he might have visited, but he had already left everywhere we went."
"When we got home we found some Christmas gifts Hank and Billie Jean had left us on the back porch. There was a box of Hollingworth candy for me and mother, and a cigarette lighter with Daddy's name engraved on it for him." Along with the gifts, Hank left a hand written note wishing Lon, Ola and Leila "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."
On January 1, 1953, a neighbor would bring the devastating news to Lon and his family which he had heard on the radio. Hank Williams had died in the back seat of his car en route to a performance. Lon refused to believe it at first but later, when the news was confirmed, took it hard. Leila would recall that "It really hurt him that he didn't get to see Hank that Christmas before he died." Lon kept the wrapping paper his gift was wrapped in for the rest of his life and refused to leave his home in fear that someone he may never see again might stop by to visit.
I first met Leila at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama sometime in the late 90's. I've always enjoyed listening to her stories about Hank, The Drifting Cowboys, her father and the extended Williams family in Alabama. She became a good friend of mine over the years and is the person who introduced me to Hank Williams III.
While visiting at her home some years ago, I asked if I could see some of the things that Hank had sent to her as gifts from the short lived "Hank and Audrey's Corral" store in Nashville. She brought out a child sized cowgirl outfit, the Hank and Audrey dolls that we're sold at the store but I had only read about but never seen and in a frame was the box of candy that Hank had left on their back porch that Christmas morning.
For me, it has always been one of the holy grails of Hank Williams artifacts. The story about this box of candy is told in nearly every biography I have read and it was surreal to actually be holding it myself. It is a testament to the fact that after all of the success Hank had experienced in the previous six years of his life, he never forgot where he came from, and on that Christmas day in 1952 he was back home again, making sure the people he cared about knew that he loved them and was still thinking about them.
I called Leila yesterday and asked her if it would be OK to share the picture I took of the box of candy as I don't believe it has ever been seen in public before. She said it was fine with her and I am happy to share it with other Hank Williams fans here today. So Merry Christmas and make sure you do something today to let the people you care about know that you love them, that's what Hank did with his last Christmas. Bye now!