The Literal Wooden Indian

Hank Williams, chocolate covered cherries, clowns playing mandolins, and a lifelong discomfort with taking things literally.

Chocolate Covered Cherry Covered Bon Jovi

I have done a lot of things I am not proud of. There are plenty of decisions I have made which, quite frankly, I am completely ashamed of. However I have never felt more completely ashamed in any given moment than while opening a present on my tenth birthday.

The incident itself is hardly embarrassing. It was a simple mistake, and one that did no harm. Yet I can remember the most visceral sense of shame I have ever felt. And it wasn’t until last night I realized why that was.

I took something literally.

The year was 1986 and in August the Boston rockers Bon Jovi released their third album, Slippery When Wet, which I had listened to over and over for months. So for my birthday, which is just before Christmas, my parents bought me their first two albums. However, as a gift, they were packaged together in a chocolate covered cherry box and wrapped. Upon removing this wrapper I concluded that my gift was the candy, which was fine by me, because I loved chocolate covered cherries and was giddy to have a box of my own that I wouldn’t have to share with siblings. As I set the box aside to open the next gift, my parents asked me if I was gonna open that box and see what was inside.

In that very moment I felt the most deep sense of embarrassment I have ever known. In fact I was probably in my mid-to-late twenties before I could remember the incident without cringing. And even after that I could never quite understand what it was that had so deeply affected me about that seemingly meaningless incident.

Tell Me the Story Behind the Picture

Looking back I can remember an earlier event in which I had been embarrassed by my own literalism.

My grandma Hotchkin had a framed print in their home that always made me curious. It was of two very old-timey clown-like figures playing mandolins. A bit of investigation reveals this to be a very old and oft-repeated trope, but unfortunately I cannot pinpoint its origins, nor find a similar print to my grandmother’s.

I once asked her about it and she told me there was a story behind that picture that she would share with me one day. I was probably five years old, and I interpreted her answer to mean that there was an actual story printed on the back side of the wall-hanging.

A year or two went by without her volunteering to fill me in, so I finally asked her if she would take the picture down and show me the story on the back. She looked at me a bit perplexed, so I explained to her that she had told me there was a story behind it and she said she would tell me someday, and hey…why not today?

She gave me a sweet grandma giggle and explained what her turn of phrase had meant. And then she told me the story of how she had acquired the item from my great-great grandmother, a native American woman whom my grandmother had adored, and for whom the picture brought fond memories of for her.

Well, that was nice and all, but I still had no more idea about what the hell clowns and mandolins were about. Plus I was embarrassed to have taken her expression so literally, and not having had figured out what she meant in all the time that had passed since I first asked.

The Party Kid

The home of my father’s parents, the one in which he had been raised, was my favorite place when I was a little kid. On many weekends it would fill up with aunts and uncles and cousins and other family and friends. A giant party would radiate outwards from their Kellogg, Iowa home, extending to the bar and other friendly porches or back yards for the adults to drink and get high on, and kids to run free and convince inebriated adults into giving us snacks, or money to acquire them, at the bar or at Casey’s General Store.

For me the most special time was late at night, when most everyone had wandered home, and the other kids (who were younger, I am the eldest on both side of my family) had all fallen asleep, and it was just me and my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. We would gather in the family room and fire up the record player. Often a guitar would get broken out, and almost always there were sing-alongs.

For me this was adults in their prime. Fully loaded and stripped bare of their facade, elevated to beings of bliss and raw emotion. Sometimes I was even able to talk the adults into going lights-out, and having the party entirely in candlelight. Often I got to be the DJ, with requests coming in to fill the ever-closing gaps in my musical knowledge.

The record collection primarily consisted of old country and early rock records. Buddy Holly was an essential favorite, but things generally ran more towards the direction of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Bobby Bare, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and all the greats from the 50’s and 60’s, as well as some from the 70’s. But nothing was ever as central to those late night gatherings as Hank Williams.

Ol’ Hank was our family icon. A totem hero for working class people with big hearts. While I often talk about KISS being my first love, Hank was every bit as important and influential. And when I was with that group of people, there was no musician in the world more important.

Sometimes after one of these Saturday night family party sleepovers, late Sunday mornings while everyone else was at church, my grandpas bluegrass-picking friends would show up and jam a bit out on the front porch. Inevitably I would always request some Hank, and just as inevitably they would play a scathing rendition of Kaw-Liga that made my little head spin.

The Literal Wooden Indian

Last night I watched the movie Hank Williams: The Performance He Never Gave for the first time ever. Somehow I didn’t even know it existed until it recently showed up on Prime. I won’t go into the movie except to say that it is mindbogglingly excellent, and was able to transport me into the emotional state of that young Joshua who stayed up late with the adults and singing along to Hank songs.

As I sat enraptured, watching actor and musician Sneezy Waters version of Kaw-Liga, I had a sudden realization. This is not just a song about a literal wooden Indian. It was not just a cute story about a lonely figure carved out of pine, but a cautionary tale against stoicism.

The unfortunate notion of Native Americans as noble savages that marked the narrative of the early twentieth century gave rise to the idea that those people, especially the men, were bound to some culturally monolithic stoicism. And since stoicism had arisen as a male virtue in the past few centuries, the trait was seen as honorable.

Hank Williams was not a stoic, but a passionate romantic. He felt rejected by the stoicism of not just men, but of his mother and first wife. It was a popular virtue which he rejected in his life and in his music. In Kaw-Liga he warns against it by using a colorful stereotype, although this was probably inspired more by the circumstances of when he wrote the song than any ill-will towards native peoples. Hanks romanticism had no room for bigotry of any kind, whether it was race or gender, and he owed his own musical roots to a black bustler named Tee Tot, who had been one of his closest friends.

Today most country fans, at least the men, also extol the attitudes that accompany stoicism. And it is this toxic disconnect from their own emotions which has escalated the renaissance of open prejudice, hate and ill-will we are currently experiencing. Their literal interpretation of the world around them coupled with their denial of the complexity of their inner selves gives rise to the delusions which beget fear and rejection.

And they’re not even the tiniest bit embarrassed by it!

I had always understood that I was intellectually opposed to literalism, but had no idea how emotionally discomforted by it I was until the Kaw-Liga realization last night

My most shameful moments are when I take things literally. When I do not scratch beyond the surface to see what else is there, and then have my error exposed. You can live your whole life comfortably on the surface, but for romantics and dreamers like ol’ Hank and I, that just ain’t an option.


2 thoughts on “The Literal Wooden Indian

  1. I always get drawn to your Kellogg/Newton stories. I think it’s because unlike a random book that I’m reading, imagining the characters, I can actually see the faces of the people you talk about such as your aunts, cousins or even your grandparents family room. But what makes me smile every time is the way you circle around and tie everything together. I guess what I’m trying to say is you have a way with words and I’m glad you share it.


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