When his contract with MGM Records took effect (on April 1, 1947), Hank Williams earned his first artist royalty of his career. Those initial label sessions produced his first songs, including “I Saw the Light,” which bore a striking resemblance to Albert. E. Brumley’s popular hymnal “He Set Me Free” (1939).
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Biographer Colin Escott – along with George Merritt and William MacEwen – points out that fact in the 1994 biography, “Hank Williams: The Biography.” He writes, “If gospel composer Albert E. Brumley had been a litigious man, he would surely have sued over ‘I Saw the Light.’ Not only was the melody identical to his hymn… but the lyrics bore a passing resemblance too.”
Reportedly, Williams penned “I Saw the Light” on the way back from a dance in Fort Deposit, Alabama. The first draft is dated January 26, 1947. Escott continues, “If all the people who later claimed to be in the car with him that night had actually been there, Hank would have needed a twenty-passenger bus.” He then notes one alleged passenger Leaborne Eads’ account, stating:
“Mizz [Lilly] Williams had given me money to hand out circulars at Fort Deposit. Hank was higher than a kite by the time the show was over. She drove home, and he was in the back seat sleepin’ it off. There was a beacon light near Dannelly Field Airport, and Mizz Williams knew it always took time to get Hank awake when he was drunk like that, so she turned around and told him, ‘Hank, wake up, we’re nearly home. I just saw the light.’ Between there and home he wrote the song.”
Williams’ “I Saw the Light” was held until release September 1948. Meanwhile, Clyde Grubbs recorded his own version for RCA Records, and it was released August 1947. That same summer, Williams wrote a letter to publisher Fred Rose, in which he stated he and first wife Audrey had recorded a demo of the song and sent it off to the label. “We didn’t do much on [it],” he writes. “We never had tried it until we went to make the record.”
“I’ve wandered so aimless, life filled with sin / I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in / Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord, I saw the light,” sings Williams. He is not only referencing Brumley’s work but crafting an ode to sin and redemption in the gospels.
Escott earlier notes, “Hank was a believer, but not, in later life, a churchgoer. Perhaps he felt unworthy, perhaps his schedule didn’t permit it. Nevertheless, he included a hymn on almost every syndicated radio show, and even in beer joints he would sometimes throw everyone off guard with a hymn. Even when he knew himself to be a backslider and a fornicator, even when he knew he had been weighed in the balance and found wanting in so many ways, he seemed to find rare peace in singing the hymns and living their sentiments in that moment at least.”
“I Saw the Light” was met with little commercial success, but it has since become one of Hank Williams’ most well-known songs. The 2015 biopic, I Saw the Light, starred Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen.