|"I Saw the Light"|
|Single by Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys|
|B-side||"Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)"|
|Published||November 16, 1948 Acuff-Rose Publications|
|Recorded||April 21, 1947|
|Genre||Hillbilly Country blues, gospel|
|Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys singles chronology|
"I Saw the Light" is a country gospel song written by Hank Williams. Williams was inspired to write the song while returning from a concert by a remark his mother made while they were arriving in Montgomery, Alabama. He recorded the song during his first session for MGM Records, and released in September 1948. Williams' version did not enjoy major success during its initial release, but eventually it became one of his most popular songs and the closing number for his live shows. It was soon covered by other acts, and has become a country gospel standard.
In September 1946, Hank Williams auditioned for Nashville's Grand Ole Opry but was rejected. After the failure of his audition, Williams and his wife Audrey tried to interest the recently formed music publishing firm Acuff-Rose Music. Williams and his wife approached Fred Rose, who signed him to a six-song contract, and leveraged a deal with Sterling Records. In December 1946, Williams had his first recording session. The songs "Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'" became successful, and earned Williams the attention of MGM Records. His first MGM session took place on April 21, 1947. The first song he recorded was "Move It on Over". The second was "I Saw the Light".
Williams was inspired to write the song in January 1947 while returning from a show in Fort Deposit, Alabama. His mother, Lilly, drove him and the band back to Montgomery that night. As she was approaching the city, she spotted the lights of Dannelly Field Airport. Williams, who slept inebriated in the backseat of the car, was roused by his mother, who told him "I just saw the light", announcing to him that they were close to Montgomery. He wrote the first draft on January 26, 1947. The lyrics and the melody by Williams closely resembled Albert E. Brumley's "He Set Me Free", published in 1939 and released in March 1941 by the Chuck Wagon Gang. Biblical citations were used, including the Gospels of Matthew and John, as well as excerpts from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians and Book of Revelation. As Williams' biographer Colin Escott astutely observes, while the melody and even some of the lyrics bear a passing resemblance to the earlier Brumley tune, "'I Saw the Light' wasn't just 'He Set Me Free' with new lyrics, though. It was the prayer of the backslider, who lives in hope of redemption."
Williams recorded the song during his first session with MGM Records on April 21, 1947. The band was composed by part of Red Foley's backing, including Zeke and Zeb Turner (guitar), Brownie Raynolds (bass), Tommy Jackson (fiddle) and Smokey Lohman (steel guitar). Williams also recorded a version of the song during a later session with his wife, which he sent to Rose on August 19. In the accompanying letter, he discouraged the producer from issuing the recording. Audrey, like many people who sing badly, seemed to have no sense of how bad she was as a vocalist, and her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life as she fought him for dominance on every note.
While the release of Williams' recording was held, the first issued version was by Clyde Grubb, who recorded it on August 13, 1947. Grubb's version was released by RCA Records (RCA 20-2485) in October 1947 with "When God" on the flipside, backed by his Tennessee Valley Boys. Williams' version was released in September 1948, while it was later copyrighted on November 16. It was backed with "Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)" and issued on MGM Records (MGM 10271). Boys' Life favored the record, stating: "It's a typical Hank Williams lament, which you western and hillbilly fans will eat up". Hank Williams first appeared on the Kate Smith Evening Hour on March 26, 1952, and joined in with the rest of the cast singing "I Saw The Light."
"I Saw the Light" was not a commercial success upon its release but has since become his most recognized hymn and one of his most popular songs. The song became a standard for both the country music and gospel music genres, and has been covered by several artists of the two genres and beyond. Allmusic called it one of Williams' "finest songs concerning his strong religious conviction". It was ranked first in Country Music Television's 20 Greatest Songs of Faith in 2005. The 2015 Williams biopic starring Tom Hiddleston was named after the song.
Bob Dylan has also referred to it as a source for religious significance.