Hank Williams’ Surprising Influence on the Poet Allen Ginsberg

There is no denying that country music has an influence on society, but sometimes it is surprising how far-reaching that influence goes.  Peter Orlovsky, the life partner of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, suspects that the name of Ginsberg’s best-known poem “Howl” was influenced by Hank Williams’ song “Howlin’ at the Moon”.  Orlovsky says that he sang “Howlin’ at the Moon” to Ginsberg during one of their many nighttime walks through San Francisco.  Days later Orlovsky saw the first draft of “Howl” on Ginsberg’s desk.  Unfortunately Orlovsky and Ginsberg never actually had a conversation about whether the song influenced the poem and Ginsberg is not alive to confirm or deny Orlovsky’s comments.  Nevertheless, it is extremely probable that Ginsberg heard Williams’ music around the same time he was writing “Howl”.

“Howlin’ at the Moon” is an upbeat, humorous song about a man who is so in love that he is acting like a hound dog.  The song light-heartedly talks about how love can drive us crazy.  “Howlin at the Moon” even includes howling in the background by the fiddler Jerry Rivers.  The song was very successful and was one of eight of Williams’ song to reach the Top Ten on the country music charts in 1951.  Although Williams’ career was taking off in the early 1950’s, his personal life was taking a dark turn.  He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse which lead to divorce, expulsion from the Grand Ole Opry, and eventually death. Ginsberg also did drugs, had a troubled love life, and struggled to fit in. Because of the similarities of the two men, Ginsberg may have felt like he could relate to Williams and might have even considered Williams to be one of the outcasts that he writes about.

“Howl” was written in 1955 and is well known for its long, rhythmic lines that criticize the widespread materialism and suburbanization of society in America in the 1950’s.  “Howl” begins with the famous line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” and goes on to describe the experiences of himself, his friends, and other outcasts of the generation.  “Howl” vividly describes controversial topics like homosexual sex, drug use, and mental illness using profane language which lead to a court case in 1957 to determine if the poem was obscene.  The judge ruled that “Howl” was not obscene and had “redeeming social importance”.  To this day, “Howl” is widely regarded as one of the most important poems in American literature and has a lasting influence on society.


So how, if at all, could “Howlin’ at the Moon” have influenced “Howl”? The song “Howlin at the Moon” makes listeners think of a happy couple that is about to get engaged and probably will have a wholesome, suburban family like so many others in the 1950’s.  After marriage, we can assume that the man would stop acting like a dog, become a domesticated family man, and probably stop howling.  Ginsberg might have thought this man was giving up his originality in order to conform to the cookie-cutter lifestyle of the 50’s.  “Howl” suggests that people should continue to “howl at the moon” instead of conforming and that there is something special about those who do not fit in.  Whether or not “Howlin’ at the Moon” actually influenced “Howl” is not known, but we can speculate how country music influences even the most unlikely works.


Filed under Blog Post 2, Honky Tonk

4 Responses to Hank Williams’ Surprising Influence on the Poet Allen Ginsberg

  1. Olivia English

    I really liked reading this post, Paige. Before reading this, I didn’t know much of anything about Allen Ginsberg or Hank Williams. I agree that it is likely that Ginsberg may have felt like Williams was someone he could relate to after learning that they both had issues with substance abuse and in their own personal/love lives. I think it’s a really interesting idea that Ginsberg may have used Williams as one of the outcasts in his songs – I wonder if that’s true! I like that throughout your post you keep bringing up the idea of going against the grain and believing in people who don’t fit in as easily, and it’s awesome that you made that connection between “Howlin’ at the Moon” influencing “Howl” all on your own.

  2. Katerina Biancardi

    Paige, this post was very interesting, and I enjoyed it! In my english class last semester we spent some of time learning about Allen Ginsberg and reading some of his poems. He was a little much for me, nevertheless he was a creative min, and that he was really involved with the beat social movement. I think it was really cool how you connected Williams and Ginsberg. Furthermore, you did a great job comparing and contrasting their live experiences in both of their expressive works: poetry and music. I defintely feel like as there must have been a connection between the Williams’ song and Ginsberg’s poem. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Kevin Lefkowitz

    This was very interesting. Although we’ve seen in class that country music has influenced American society, it was really cool to read about a specific instance. The connection between a social movement and country music really beats the stereotype that country music is a music industry for backwards people, so I really enjoyed reading about the connection between Williams and Ginsberg. Although I’m not really a fan of poetry, reading about country music’s connection with it was interesting. Reading about Williams and Ginsbergs’ shared problems really demonstrates how people all go thorough similar issues, despite their apparent differences. Great post!

  4. Drew Scherger

    I think that its cool to read about something like this because it seems that a lot of times, Southern art forms, especially country music, are put down and viewed as low brow and belonging to an uneducated people. It’s cool to see that an intellectual artist from the East coast saw Hank Williams as an artistic peer and maybe even an influence on his own work. I think that a lot of Southern authors like Tennessee Williams and Larry McMurtry have become respected around the world but hasn’t always been the case with Southern music artists. A lot of Southern artists such as Ray Charles and Willie Nelson have become famous worldwide and its cool to see that some of them are starting to become recognized for their songwriting abilities as well now.

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