Soon after Bob Marley passed away, he and Hank Williams were playing dominoes in heaven. And since Bob’s father was an English sailor, and with heaven’s genealogical records being fairly thorough, they soon discovered a common ancestor — Hank Marley.
After Marley and Williams made the connection, they dropped a piece of the country music legend’s spine to earth — a magic bone given to him by St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and forgotten people. A hog found it and dropped it in a yard in Louisville, Ky., where the modern incarnation of Hank “The Pirate” Marley was born.
The original Hank Marley was a carpenter on a 1700s slave ship. He befriended one of the captives on a voyage, ultimately freeing him of his chains. That led to mutiny and the throwing overboard of all the slave traders, save Hank. The men became pirates, and the Hank Marley legend began.
Today, that 300-year-old ghost of a pirate now hangs his tricorner on Folly, writing “Caribbean-Hillbilly” songs and making regular trips to the Market downtown to revel with tourists. His stilted home is painted with rasta colors, and jugs of wine brewed from the fruit of palmetto trees sit fermenting in the living room. He sings and cracks jokes as he prepares “beans and greens.”
Hank subsists on the tips he makes playing around the Market and East Bay streets. Whenever a family approaches, he snarls, “Aayy, another motley pirate crew!”
“I ask the kids if they want the scary song or the funny song,” says Hank.
The funny song goes, “Swords, guns, and buried treasure, that’s all we need/A few tattered sails, a vessel and some rum, and a whole lot of ice cream.” In the scary song, Blackbeard’s just-beheaded body swims in the ocean looking for its head, but even when he sings it, the kids laugh.
Hank estimates he’s given out about 30,000 of his Hank the Pirate stickers over the last three years of playing in Charleston, and he oftentimes buys kazoos, harmonicas, and whistles for kids to join in the song. But his act isn’t just for tykes.
“If strolling sweethearts come along, I’ll say, ‘Hey man, ain’t that the one you wanted me to write that song for?’ Then I’ll start, ‘On the day he met you, Lord, he figured out why the sky is blue,'” Hank sings, going cross-eyed in the process. “I got a five dollar tip off a deaf lady on that one, dude.”
Last month, the city began heavily enforcing the restrictions on peddlers in high tourist traffic areas downtown, and Hank’s been forced to pack up and find other places to play. The time off gave him a chance to finish up an album with his band, Hank Marley & The Serious Side Effects, in addition to booking birthday parties and dreaming up a “virtual street musician” website. Hank also leads a weekly open mic at Johnson’s Pub every Monday.
“Playing on the street, you get over yourself quickly,” says Hank, who doesn’t seem at all worried about maintaining a source of income with busking off limits. “I know that if I live right, do yoga, think happy thoughts, write songs, and eat my beans and greens, then all these cool circumstances end up happening that help me attain my goals.”
If you press him enough, Hank will let on that he grew up the son of a businessman, moving from Kentucky to Georgia to Ohio and then to Charleston. But that’s just a front to cover his back story for those too stuffy to believe he’s a pirate, back from the grave to promote unity in music.
So then why haven’t we heard about Hank Marley in the history books? “Because dead men tell no tales,” says Hank in a low rumbling voice, before he grins and serves up a heaping plate of food. —Stratton Lawrence