By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Henry William Thompson was born in Waco in 1925, the only child of Jule and Zexia Thompson. Like many living between the wars, the family lived out in the country but didn't farm. Jule--whose Bohemian parents changed their name from Kocek when they came to America--had been a railroad engineer, then served on a battleship during World War I. When he returned home, he'd had enough of grimy, coal-burning steam technology. Sensing that gasoline would be the fuel of the future, he opened up a little shop that worked on automobiles and gas engines.
There was no musical talent in Henry William's immediate family; the closest point of inspiration was "Old Man John," Jule's oldest brother. "He'd sing the old songs, from Bohemia, in German--the waltzes and polkas and such--and I thought it was great," Thompson recalls.
Fortunately, there were new technologies that made up for the dearth of music in the house. Million-watt radio stations just south of the border--like XEMO, XEG, and XCRA--played the likes of Cowboy Slim Rinehart, Vernon Dalhart, and Utah Carroll. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was on both the border stations and closer channels, and young Henry William--like most youngsters then--grew up listening to the Light Crust Doughboys, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Grand Ole Opry. "In the summertime, you could go down into the river bottom on a Saturday night and get [Opry station] WSM real well," Thompson recalls.
On weekends he would also head to the town square and the Waco Theater, where he found two more guides: singing cowboy Gene Autry and an anonymous street musician. "This black dude was blind," Thompson explains, "and he'd work down there on Main Street on weekends, playing blues and religious songs and singing in a scratchy, Blind Lemon-style voice. He had a tin cup nailed to the end of this beat-up guitar, and I'd just sit around and watch him; I thought he was great. He'd do songs like "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," and one I can still remember--Dog chased the rabbit, chased it for one long mile/But he couldn't catch the rabbit, so he cried just like a child."
When he was 10, Henry William--an uncle already had dibs on Hank--got his first guitar, a $4 Vernon. He and pal Jimmy Gilliland started playing around together, and when the Waco Theater initiated a kiddies' matinee at the turn of the '40s, Thompson started winning the talent show, singing the songs he heard on the radio--"Wabash Cannonball," "Great Speckled Bird," "Walking the Floor Over You"--and going out over the airwaves with the rest of the matinee courtesy of radio station WACO. He already knew that a mechanic's labor was not for him. "I didn't like it worth a damn," he says of the garage. "All that grease...I liked playing the guitar on the radio a lot more."
It was on WACO that Henry William became Hank, and then became popular; by high school he had done "all the amateur shows" and had his own slot, Monday through Friday from 7:15 to 7:30 a.m., singing and playing guitar as Hank the Hired Hand courtesy of the fine folks at Unclaimed Freighthouse, purveyors of Unclaimed Freighthouse brand flour. "The Unclaimed Freighthouse was bigger than most of the mom 'n' pop grocery stores of the day," Thompson explains. "I'd just pick and sing and sign pictures for folks--back then, everybody knew you if you were on the radio."
He took the $5 a week the show paid and bought himself a real guitar, a Gibson J-200 acoustic flattop, on an installment plan, but didn't really think about doing music for a living. "I did it because I enjoyed it," he says. "I didn't necessarily think of it as a career, because that part of the business didn't exist as such."
Then in 1943, Hank the Hired Hand graduated from high school on a Friday, spent the weekend with his folks, then got up on Monday and did his last show. He caught the interurban, the big electric train that ran from Waco to Dallas. In Dallas he joined up with the U.S. Navy; he would not return to Waco for two and a half years.
He ended up teaching radio basics at the Small Craft Training Center in San Pedro, California. "I could've spent the war there," Thompson says, "teaching guys how to use a soldering iron and how to change tubes. But there was a war going on, and I was supposed to be a sailor. I wanted to get on with it." Although his transfer was opposed by his superiors--the bright kid from Texas was doing most of their work--he ended up assigned to a tiny fleet tug and rescue-salvage vessel in the Pacific.
As was the case with many who went off to fight, World War II was a defining time for Thompson--not so much as a warrior, but as a picker and singer. He had his trusty J-200 with him, and the sailors appreciated anybody who could entertain. He practiced constantly, for the first time writing his own songs and developing a musical personality. "At sea, there's not that much to do, and when we were in port, I'd take my guitar and go down to whatever li'l bar and sing, and we'd all get free drinks, the girls would all gang around. It was a lot of fun." Thompson was at sea a year, visiting places with history-book names like Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and the Coral Sea.