It was more than fifty years ago this week, that Hank Williams was on his way home from playing a show an hour south of Montgomery, Alabama. He was asleep – quite drunk in fact – in the backseat of the car, his mother at the wheel. As she came over a hill, she saw the landing lights of the local airport pan the night sky.
Knowing they were now close to home, she called out, “Hank! Wake up! I just saw the light!” Williams seemed to sober up immediately, and began working on the first draft of a song that would become his most legendary hit: “I Saw the Light.”
The lyrics are simple. “I saw the light. I saw the light. No more darkness, no more night. Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight. Praise the Lord, I saw the light!” When these words were put to the tune of an old Scottish folk song, as Williams did, the result was an austere, uncomplicated masterpiece.
It’s a song that can be sung when your heart is nimble, your steps sure, as if fresh from the baptismal waters. You can sing it while strung-out, down-and-out, or washed-out, as a prayer for better days. It works in the church sanctuary, the rehab center, or the local bar. “I Saw the Light” is an all-embracing confession of faith and prayer for help.
Hank needed all the help he could get. His physical and emotional pain – from a twisted back and the abandonment of his father – had him drinking heavy by the age of ten. He had untold potential and soaring talent, but his life was a lesson in self-destruction. When he died, at age 29, a few years after composing this masterful song, it was “heart failure” written on his death certificate. But those who loved him knew his light had gone out.
Of course, this song was a throwback to Hank’s Baptist roots. He had begun his musical career as a preschooler, standing to sing on a piano bench, accompanied by his mother’s playing. “I Saw the Light” took him back to those earliest, illuminated days. Truth be told, we all want to go back, back to innocence, to simplicity, back to when there was more light and less darkness.
What happened to the light, the glow once within us, and on our faces? It’s still there, somewhere. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it,” John’s Gospel says. It’s true. No depth of darkness can ever put out even the smallest candle. We smother the light ourselves.
As Elizabeth Bathurst said, a Quaker theologian from three centuries ago: “Give heed to light!Nurture it! Do so, and it will increase in brightness until it shines in the Soul like the noon-day sun.” The light isn’t shining over the hill. It is shining within you, where there can be no more darkness, no more night. You’ll sing praises when you find it.