More Questions for ‘The Lost Notebook of Hank Williams’

On October 4th, The Lost Notebook of Hank Williams will be released, a collection of unfinished Hank Williams songs recorded by modern-day artists in a project shepherded by Bob Dylan. As far back as October of 2008, I’ve had serious questions about the origins of these songs, the ethics behind the project, and the artists chosen to flesh out songs that do not include music, just lyrics, and some just fragments or ideas jotted down on paper.

Now I have a new concern: why we are being given wrong information.

On August 4th, The Morton Report offered up a detailed explanation of how this project came about, and specifics about the custody of the songs since Hank’s death. Problem is, elements of this story are incorrect. It starts off by explaining:

The idea for this project came about when the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum were putting together a 5000-square foot exhibition titled ‘Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy’ back in March, 2008.

This simply isn’t true. As I pointed out here last week, and in my original article from 2008, Jack White and his bass player both spoke about this project in mid-November of 2007, 4 months before The Morton Report’s story says the idea for the project came about. Not only was it already an idea, songs for the project had already been recorded by March 2008. On November 26th, 2007 Jack White said to MTV:

Bob’s putting together an album. He came upon, somehow, 20-25 unfinished songs by Hank Williams: just the lyrics, no music, and he started to ask people if they would finish these songs. He did one, asked Willie Nelson to do one, asked me to do one, and I think Lucinda Williams and Alan Jackson are on it too. I think it might come out this year (2008). It’s a cool record.”

The Jack White information was published again by MTV on February 25, 2008, once again, before whoever The Morton’s Report’s source is, is saying the idea for the project was hatched.

The Morton Report also talks about the ownership progression of the material, but doesn’t point out the simple fact that music publisher Acuff-Rose, who owned the rights to Hank’s songs, was acquired by Sony ATV (Sony’s music publishing division) in 2002, and that unfinished Hank songs were first offered to Dylan by Sony in 2004. Even if the Morton Report misunderstood or misprinted the information, and it should have read “The idea for this project came about when the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum were putting together ‘Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy’, which opened in March, 2008″, it still doesn’t take into account that the Dylan/Williams project had been already going on for years, possibly with Dylan handling the songs himself instead of distributing them to others.

The Morton Report story also states:

…one of the notebooks was stolen by a member of cleaning staff at the Sony ATV offices where the lyrics were then housed. Eventually they were recovered…

This statement is also untrue, or is at least a very biased opinion, and may be a clue in discovering why the information about the origination and ownership of these songs has been so unusual.

In March of 2007, a judge in Sumner County, TN, just north of Nashville, dropped all charges filed against music collector Stephen M. Shutts and a janitor for Sony named Francine Boykin. The two had been accused of the theft of a notebook containing 17 unfinished Hank Williams songs, as well as items from Roy Orbison, Buck Owens and Conway Twitty, from Sony’s Music Row offices. In a story that sounds very similar to the one behind Hank Sr.’s Mother’s Best Recordings, the janitor claims these unfinished Hank Williams songs were recovered from the trash, not stolen, and the Sumner County judge agreed. The acetate recordings of Hank’s Mother Best sessions were also recovered from the trash, by a studious WSM employee.

The next question would then be if a judge ruled that the songs weren’t stolen, then when or how were the songs then “recovered”, and by whom? Did Bob acquire the songs from collector Stephen Shutts? Does Stephen own the actual sheets of paper, but Sony ATV or Dylan, whose own personal label is releasing these songs, own the actual intellectual property or the ability to publish the songs?

The timing of the judge’s ruling is also interesting, being about the time Bob Dylan would need to reach out to Jack White and others, and be able to book studio time for making recordings in November of 2007 for a release to possibly coincide with the Hall of Fame’s “Family Tradition” exhibit, which was originally planned to close on December 31st, 2009. But that begs another question: why if the origin of this project is the Hall of Fame exhibit, and at the launching of the exhibit it was intended to only be open until the end of 2009, why would they wait til late 2011 to release songs recorded in 2007?

Yet another question is why the Morton Report story says there’s 66 unfinished songs, but there were only 17 unfinished songs in the notebook acquired by Stephen Shutts and Francine Boykin? Jack White remarked that there were about 20-25 songs. So which is it? Were there multiple sources for these unfinished songs? The Morton Report says “one of the notebooks was stolen”. Was the collection split at some point?

Instead of getting answers, we now have many more questions surrounding The Lost Notebook of Hank Williams. I have no doubt that with the amount of lawyers any music project needs these days to get published, this matter has been thoroughly addressed behind-the-scenes by the right people to make sure the October 3rd release doesn’t result in multiple lawsuits. Hank Jr. is now promoting the project on his website, which takes away a little of the mystery behind the stance of at least part of the official Hank Williams estate.

But with a project that even if all the questions are answered as far as the origination of the songs, will still have some concerned if it is ethical to take a dead man’s songs and hand them out to various artists for interpretation, the least the public is owed is transparency, and right now, the amount of transparency in this project is going in the wrong direction.