Although Hank Williams didn't write and never professionally recorded "Tramp on the Street," the plea for Christ-like charity ranks among the most moving and meaningful songs from his influential Health & Happiness radio show.
This Friday (June 14), BMG compiles all 49 tracks from the show's eight episode run, recorded in Oct. 1949, on The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings. It includes the only known example of Williams singing "Tramp" live in the studio. Today, Wide Open Country is exclusively premiering the recording.
The song can be traced back to an 1877 poem titled "Only a Tramp," penned by Dr. Addison Crabtre and posing the same question later asked by Williams and dozens of others: would Jesus get better treatment today than the homeless in your hometown?
Grady and Hazel Cole, a married couple from Northwest Georgia, turned a 60-year-old poem into a Depression-era period piece, upping the spiritual stakes by swapping Crabtre's nameless beggar for Lazarus from the New Testament. There's no telling when the Coles, a prolific songwriting duo responsible for The Louvin Brothers deep cut "What a Change One Day Can Make," wrote the song, but they definitely recorded it for Bluebird on Aug. 24, 1939.
While other early versions are informed by the Coles' oddly peppy, accordion-driven arrangement, Williams made a great song greater, scrapping the Cole's waltz and replacing it with a country-blues feel that better suits Grady and Hazel's heart-wrenching lyrics.
The song's legacy extends well beyond Williams' radio career. Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Carlisle released the only top 15 version in 1948, prompting covers by The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and others. Later on, its themes made it a good fit for bluegrass and gospel artists, including Earl Scruggs and The Lewis Family.
"Tramp's" biggest touchstone moment not involving Williams came when a 1961 recording by song collector Ramblin' Jack Elliott introduced a modern-day morality tale to a who's-who of folk revivalists, namely Joan Baez, The Staples Singers and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The song's influence since the folk revival's heyday has faded beyond Williams devotees, despite an irreverent '70s rendition by Kinky Friedman, a performance in the '90s on The Statler Brothers Show and a 21st century update by Americana artist Drunken Prayer.
Hopefully, a well-received archival release from Williams' shortened career introduces more listeners to an incredible example of country-gospel storytelling.