Honky Tonk Angel
The great country singer Kitty Wells died at the age of 92 yesterday, July 17, of a stroke. Wells was most famous for her 1952 song “It wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The song is a classic in the genre of the answer song, a song that takes the melody and theme of another song and turns it on itself. Wells was responding to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” While Thompson sings about being dumped by a woman with a taste for for the “wild side of life,” Wells takes the woman’s position, showing how the behavior the classic country-song man is what creates the honky tonk angels, Thompson sings about.
With Wells’ death, we lose a living connection to a call and response series that takes us back to the beginning of country music and beyond. The melody was first recorded as “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” in the 1920s, a Carter Family song, which laments the separation of lovers by the “wide world,” and its natural features and fates.
Roy Acuff recorded the melody again with 1936′s “The Great Speckled Bird,” a gospel tune comparing the Bible to a great speckled bird, in a fashion almost like that of the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Acuff’s song can be read as a response to the Carter Family. While they see nature as a tragedy, which keeps people apart, Acuff turns to the old saw that says nature is the book of god into theodicy. His gospel song wants to show that the natural world is good.
By the time we get to Hank Thompson, it is too late for that. Thompson takes the song to the industrial world of displaced rural people living in cities like Baltimore, working in factories, and drinking in honky tonks. The natural world is now sexual attraction, and as he loses his wife, he sings “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels/ I should have known you’d never make a wife/ you gave up the only man who ever loved you/ and went back to the wild side of life.” Thompson is bringing back the sense of distance in the Carter Family’s song, but now it is the modern world, rather than the sea, which separates lovers.
At a moment when women were demanding rights, Wells took this melody, and Thompson’s theme, and responded from the position of the woman Thompson was singing about. “It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels/ as you said in the words of your song/ too many times married men still think their single/ that has caused many a good girl to go wrong.”
Wells goes back and reclaims the longing from the woman’s position that is in the Carter Family song, because it is not the sea that actually keeps the original lovers apart, but rather the fact that the man ran off to sea.
But beyond this song, which she admits she recorded for a paycheck, Wells was one of the great female voices of country music’s golden era. Eddie Stubbs, announcer for the Grand Old Opry, and host of the late great radio Eddie Stubbs show, played in Wells’ band and often talked of her character and generosity of spirit. Listening to Stubbs talk about her during his show’s long run at WAMU, you almost felt like you knew Wells. Listening to her songs, you did.
God might not have made honky tonk angels, but if there is such a being, it would do well to claim it made Kitty Wells.