Kerry Ann Voigt

The Legend of Bocephus

Comedian Rod Brasfield performed on the Grand Ole Opry from 1947 until his death from heart failure in 1958. He was known for his ventriloquist act with a dummy named Bocephus.

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Randall Hank Williams began impersonating his dead father a few weeks shy of his ninth birthday, the same year Brasfield died. With oil-slicked hair, wearing starched suits adorned with sparkling rhinestone buttons, the boy would stand in front of the mirror and practice for hours the gestures and affectations of a father who had died when he was only three-years-old. His mother would watch with great care and attention, guiding and directing her son into his performance. “Good boy,” she would say, “you’re just like your Daddy.”

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Some people speculate that Randall’s father, Hiram King Williams, was named after Hiram I of Tyre, a Phoenician King during the time of King David, and according to legend, one of the three founders of the Freemasons, rumored to have built Solomon’s Temple. The regal importance of the name must have been lost on the clerks of the courthouse in Mount Olive, Alabama where Hiram was born in 1923: someone misspelled it “Hiriam” on his official birth certificate.

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Hiram’s father, Elonzo Williams, was born in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1891. He was born into a family that had immigrated to America before the Revolutionary War. Depending on who you ask, Elonzo’s kin came from North or South Carolina. And depending on who you ask, there is a profound difference in those two options, and it probably has something to do with money. Wherever their origins, the Williams family eventually moved west for work. By trade, Elonzo was a railroad engineer, a man who built things; it was through this career that he came to be a Mason and came to maybe name his son after a Mason king.

In 1916, a little over a month before his 25th birthday, Elonzo married eighteen-year-old, Alabaman Jessie Lillybelle Skipper. She had brunette hair and broad hips. The newlyweds had less than two years together before Elonzo was shipped to France to serve in the last year of the Great War. The young husband returned to his young bride shell-shocked.

Some people liked to say that Elonzo’s trauma actually came from being hit over the head with a wine bottle during a bar fight involving the affections of a young French woman. If that is true, that wine bottle would have been swung with enough force to break Elonzo’s collarbone.

Nonetheless, the husband returned to his wife a different man, and Lillybelle did what any self-respecting, Southern woman with some salt would do—she commenced making a family. The young wife had three children within four years of Elonzo’s return from the war. Two survived. Hiram was the youngest.

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He was six-years-old when his father’s face began to fall. As these things tend to do, perhaps it started with a twitch that easily could have been mistaken for a twinkle, but before long the child became alarmed by the rapid descent of his father’s expression.

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When she was 29-years-old, Lillybelle sent her young husband with a falling face away to the VA hospital to be treated for what was diagnosed as an aneurysm. This must have been the longest recorded aneurysm in medical history: Elonzo didn’t return for eight years. In the meantime, Elonzo Williams’ family endured the Great Depression. The family drifted from small town to small town throughout the state of Alabama. The mother became larger, her hips spreading wider, her arms becoming stronger. The children wore glasses and dress shoes. There were no signs of malnutrition or want. Rumors were that Lillybelle was able to care so well for herself and her two children by operating brothels out of her homes, though they would have been disguised as boarding houses. No one can confirm this.

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By the time Elonzo was released from the hospital in August of 1938, Hiram had learned to play guitar from an African-American bluesman, won his first singing contest, appeared on a weekly radio show. More importantly, he had begun to drink. The fourteen-year-old, who now called himself Hank, had one month with his long lost father with the falling face, even celebrating his fifteenth birthday with him at his side, before Lillybelle sent Elonzo away once more. As far as anyone knows, the Mason and his son never saw each other again.

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Hank Williams went on playing music. At 20-years-old, he met a girl named Audrey who matched him in age and height. She was as determined as his mother and had broad shoulders and long, outstretched arms. The story goes that it was Audrey who got him a record deal in Nashville, and if it hadn’t had been for that deal, maybe there never would have been the six standing ovations at the Grand Ole Opry, never any rhinestone encrusted Nudie suits, nor any pure white, Stetson cowboy hats. And, maybe if it hadn’t been for those six standing ovations at the Opry, the sparkling suits and over-sized hats, then no one would have ever called Hank “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And if Hank was never The Hillbilly Shakespeare, then the Chair of the Iowa State Department of English, Barbara Ching, never would have written “[…] the name ‘hillbilly Shakespeare’ insisted upon a contrast between European high art and inbred American low life, between the sublime and the ridiculous.” And if Barbara Ching had never written that, then we listeners of country music may not have ever known what inbred American lowlifes we are.

But, Audrey did meet Hank, and there was a record deal, a marriage, and eventually, in 1949, a son. The Mason King had his prince, Randall Hank Williams, and he dubbed him Bocephus, because he thought his child bared a striking resemblance to that dummy on the Grand Ole Opry.

Of course, the marriage would fall apart and so would the Mason King. He would be fired from the Grand Ole Opry for being too much of a drunk, instead of just the right amount, and on New Year’s Day 1953, would die in the backseat of a 1952 ragtop Cadillac on his way to a show. Cause of death: misery (plus too much booze and pills).

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For almost fifteen years, a young Randall Hank Williams, accompanied by his mother, traveled the country wearing a dead man’s face and covering himself in bones. The boy went to Hollywood and sang his father’s parts in a movie of Hank Williams’ life that starred, the obvious choice, George Hamilton. In 1964, Randall even played the New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio his father never made it to back in 1953—a kind of psychic, ghostly do-over.

The Grand Ole Opry, who had fired Hank Williams four months before his death, now welcomed with open arms his adolescent boy. By this point, Randall had changed his name to Hank Jr. to sing his father’s songs (a sort of non-name really, because Hank never was legally Hank, but always the misspelled Hiriam). There was record after record, hit after hit, royalty check after royalty check. His mother said, “Good boy,” outstretching her long arms, “You’re just like your Daddy.”

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As Hank Jr. grew older, he tired of being known as a dead man’s voice, wearing Nudie suits made of sparkle and bones, and he tired of Audrey’s strong, outstretched arms. For years he struggled to rid himself of both. She proved to be easier to lose than the former due to her growing inclination to indulge in drugs and alcohol. The ghost of his father was harder, more stubborn. Troubled by his inability to take off his death mask, Hank Jr., too, began his legacy of drinking; and eventually, the living son tried to join his Mason King father by taking what he describes as a “mayonnaise jar full of pills” in 1974. As for Audrey, she would be dead the following November.

The suicide attempt did not, however, improve Hank Jr.’s plight, but moving from Nashville to Alabama and hanging out with the likes of Waylon Jennings and Charlie Daniels did. Music and life seemed to be changing, becoming more charged, less lonesome. His father’s death mask began to slide from his face. But still there was something wrong.

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On August 8, 1975, Hank Jr. went mountain climbing with a friend and his friend’s young son on Ajax Peak in Montana. Upon their decent, the snow beneath the Mason King’s son collapsed, and he went tumbling head over hills. He fell almost 500 feet, equivalent to falling from or bouncing down a 50-story building, before he landed on a rock ledge below. Hank Jr.’s face was split vertically from chin to hairline, exposing the frontal lobes of his brain. The mountain had effectively ripped the man’s face in two, but left the rest of his body intact.

It took six hours for authorities in Beaverhead County to get Hank Jr. off of that ledge. In those hours, the young boy in the hiking party sat with this man with no face, held his hand, and tried to comfort him, while his father went for help. Hank Jr. doesn’t remember that part. He remembers being visited by his own father the Mason King, Hank Williams. He remembers a conversation with his Daddy. He remembers being told, “Be your own man.” He remembers becoming old in an instant.

The helicopter finally arrived and was able to lift the suddenly old man off his rock ledge and carry him to the hospital. It required over two years of reconstructive surgeries to rebuild his face. To hide the scars and the disfigurement from the accident, Williams grew a long, wild, mountain-man beard and began wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat. He no longer resembled his father. But, that didn’t matter, because the death mask was gone. Hank Jr. emerged Bocephus, free to make a face of his own.

Kerry Ann Voigt

Kerry Ann Voigt graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Minnesota in the spring of 2013. While there, she served as editor-in-chief of dislocate Literary Magazine for two years. Kerry Ann now lives in rural North Carolina at the edge of a lake. This is her first published piece.