Hank Williams

(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle

Composed by Hank Williams / Jimmie Davis

Song Review by

In the country-waltz tragedy "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle," Hank Williams tracks a young man who follows the call of the rails, leaves behind his "gal" and his "home," finds trouble along the way, and eventually gets sent to jail: "All alone I bear the shame/I'm a number, not a name/I heard that lonesome whistle blow." Williams explores the long-standing folk, blues, and country tradition of the prison song, from the point of view of the prisoner trying to explain himself. In "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle," the narrator seems to be regretful, kicking himself. This is in contrast to the protagonist in Johnny Cash's song "Fulsom Prison Blues," who also sits locked in a cell forced to ponder the lonesome whistle of a train; that narrator seems to only regret that he was caught, a guy who "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" must have a pretty evil makeup. Williams' anti-hero, though, seems to blame his own ignorance, "just a kid actin' smart [who] went and broke [his] darlin's heart." The song never specifies his crime, though it is serious enough that he will grow old in jail: "'Til my body's just a shell/And my hair turns whiter than snow." Williams was reportedly inspired to write the song after riding on a train with a convict being transported by armed guards. Williams' remarkably emotive voice ranges from the wounded-dog howls of each drawn-out "lonesome," mimicking the train whistle, to a teeth-gritting aggression and simmering anger. His Drifting Cowboys provide a lilting waltz-time accompaniment, with fiddle by Jerry Rivers and steel guitar by Don Helm providing a mournful backing. Williams seemed to live his life conscious that he might not be around for long. Though he died young, he left behind an impressive body of work: a dizzying catalog of masterful country music standards. "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle" was written in 1951, one of eight of his singles to go Top Ten in that year. Williams scored roughly 30 Top Ten hits between 1947, the year he broke though, and 1953, the year he died. Though first released as a single, the song is available on a myriad of Williams collections. Jimmie Davis gets a co-writer's credit on "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle." Davis, a two-time governor of Louisiana, actor, police chief, and Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter/performer, was a legendary character who has written "You Are My Sunshine" and "All Alone in This World" among countless other country standards. He died at the age of 101. He recorded his own version, a full-throated Waylon Jennings-like arrangement. Bob Dylan, who has claimed Williams as an influence as important, if not more so, than Woody Guthrie, cut a version for his Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, an outtake only available on bootleg collections like Freewheelin' Bob Dylan Outtakes (1993). Dylan's recording reads the song as a folk song along the lines of Dock Boggs' high-lonesome version of "Prisoner's Song." Johnny Cash's recording for Sun in 1957 still stands as the best cover of "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle." Cash's deep baritone perfectly suits his slower mournful version, and he does not attempt to ham up the "lonesome" line. The recording is typical for Sun at the time: tape echo; eerily sparse arrangement; percussive, muted guitar. Townes Van Zandt sounds absolutely ravaged on his 1997 Highway Kind cover of the song, released posthumously after a hard-lived life. Van Zandt sounds like the prisoner after he has aged in his cell, his body indeed a "shell" and his hair "whiter than snow." Van Zandt's already limited vocal range can not get anywhere near the notes he attempts on the "lonesome" howls, effectively making the song seem that much more pathetic and tragic.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
No Image 1955 Doxy Records 2:28
No Image 1961 Polydor
No Image 1965 MGM
No Image 1966 MGM
24 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 1976 Mercury 2:26
40 Greatest Hits 1978 Polydor / Mercury / Universal 2:28
No Image 1987 Pair
Lonesome Blues 1992 Spm 2:25
The Original Singles Collection...Plus 1992 Mercury 2:28
The Hits, Vol. 1 1994 Mercury Nashville / Universal Music 2:26
Alone & Forsaken 1995 Mercury Nashville / Mercury 2:26
Low Down Blues 1996 Mercury Nashville / Polygram 2:25
Between the Rails: America's Train Songs 1996
Various Artists
GNP/Crescendo 2:40
The Complete Hank Williams 1998 Mercury Nashville / Mercury 2:26
20th Century Masters-The Millennium Collection: Best of Hank Williams 1999 Mercury 2:29
Hillbilly Hero [4 CD Set] 2002 Proper Box 2:28
Collection [Universal] 2002 Spectrum Music / Universal International 2:26
Ultimate Collection [Mercury/UTV] 2002 UTV / Mercury 2:26
Hey Good Lookin': Hillbilly Hero 2002 Proper Sales & Dist. 2:28
Come September: An Introduction to Hank Williams 2003 Universal Distribution
No Image 2003 X5 2:27
48 Original Recordings 2003 Prism Entertainment / Prism Leisure 2:27
The Ultimate Collection [Prism] 2003 Prism Entertainment
Golden Greats 2003 Disky Golden Greats 2:27
Moanin' the Blues 1947-1951 2004 Frémeaux & Associés 2:28
Hank Williams [2004] 2004 Kala International 2:25
His Best Recordings, Vol. 2: 1949-1953 2004 Blue Moon 2:26
Your Cheatin' Heart [Double Pleasure] 2005 Double Pleasure 2:24
No More Darkness 2005 Trikont
No Image 2005 Mercury / Nashville / Universal 2:27
Settin' the Woods on Fire 2005 Snapper 2:27
Turn Back the Years: The Essential Hank Williams Collection 2005 Mercury Nashville 2:27
You Win Again: 26 Great Original Recording [Box Set] 2006 Prism Entertainment 2:27
Country Music Legends 2006 Castle Pulse 2:28
Collected 2006 Deluxe 2:27
Hey, Good Lookin [Dynamic Entertainment] 2007 Dynamic 2:24
No Image 2008 Universal Distribution 2:25
Out-Takes from the Early Dylan Sessions 2011
Various Artists
Righteous 2:25
The Complete Singles As & Bs 1945-1955 2016 Acrobat 2:25
Six More Miles to the Graveyard Doxy Records
No Image X5 2:27
blue highlight denotes editor's pick