This week we’re going to be looking at Hank Williams (Sr., the first one, the best one.) He is often considered the most significant country musician of all time.
While there are many interesting aspects of Hank’s history, it is in his childhood where we meet Rufus Payne, sometimes referred to as “Tee-Tot,” a play on the term “teetotaler” because Payne was said to never be seen without a homemade alcoholic concoction.
Rufus has become a kind of mythical creature in Hank’s life. In fact, legend has it that Hank’s mother fed Rufus in exchange for Hank’s guitar lessons. In their Hank Williams biography, authors Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen write about Rufus:
It was probably in Georgiana that Hank met his first acknowledged musical influence, a black street musician, Rufus Payne. Because Payne was rarely found without a home-brewed mix of alcohol and tea, Payne’s nickname was “Tee-Tot,” a pun on teetotaler. Details about him are not only sketchy, but contradictory as well. According to researcher Alice Harp, Rufus was born in 1884 on the Payne Plantation in Sandy Ridge, Lowndes County, Alabama. His parents had been slaves there, but they moved to New Orleans around 1890, giving Rufus a front-row seat for the birth of jazz. After his parents died, Rufus settled in Greenville, Alabama. Harp insists that Payne became a society musician, playing white functions, learning all the pop hits of the day.
The authors go on to explain that Rufus was a one-man band with a guitar, cymbals attached between his legs, a jazz horn, and a “Jew’s harp” who wondered around Georgiana busking for money. However, what I found most interesting about the authors’ description of Rufus was how they explained young Hank Williams. They write:
A crowd of kids followed Tee-Tot around, but Hank was the only who wanted to do more than listen. He wanted to learn. Exactly what passed between Hank Williams and Rufus Payne will never be known. If, as has often been said, Payne gave Hank [guitar] lessons, it’s hard to know what he imparted. Hank probably already knew most of the chords that Payne knew, so perhaps the lessons involved broader strokes. J.C. McNeil, who insisted he also took lessons from Payne, said that Payne always stressed the importance of keeping time and getting a good rhythm going.
Personally, my favorite part of Hank’s music is the strong sense of rhythm. A song like “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” is a perfect example of Hank’s unmistakable driving rhythm.
Clearly, Rufus Payne’s influence on Hank Williams can’t be traced exactly. However, it’s clear that he played at least a minor part in forming Hank’s understanding of music, especially the blues. Regardless of the amount of Rufus’ involvement, the fact is he helped mold the most famous country singer of all time, and that’s quite an accomplishment.