Johnny Cash: a 'musical outlaw'

Issue 

BY JOHN NICHOLS

Later this year, the American Recordings label will release a collection of Johnny Cash songs which will include a collaboration with one of the legendary country singer's greatest fans, the late Joe Strummer. The pair's version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" will serve as a poignant reminder of why Cash, who died on September 12 at age 71, was so revered by his fellow musicians — if not always by a music industry that had a hard time figuring him out.

Cash loved playing with younger artists who shared his recognition that a song ought to come with an edge — and maybe even a little politics. His collaborations with Bob Dylan, U2 and Strummer, and the delight with which he covered songs by Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, Beck, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, made it impossible to slot Cash into the narrow categories in which contemporary radio programmers consign artists. "He's an outsider, never been part of a trend", noted American Recordings' Rick Rubin.

In his remarkable 1997 Cash: The Autobiography, Cash reflected on a career that began with hit singles but eventually saw him searching for a proper record label — a search that ended only when Rubin, a groundbreaking rock and rap producer, signed him to American Recordings and produced four starkly brilliant albums. When people wondered why a country singer was on his label, Rubin said, "A rock star is a musical outlaw and that's Johnny".

Cash embraced that outlaw image, singing in his signature song, "Man in Black": "Well, you wonder why I always dress in black/Why you never see bright colours on my back/And why does my appearance seem to have a sombre tone/Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on/I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime...

"I wear it for the sick and lonely old/For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold/I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been/Each week we lose a hundred fine young men/And, I wear it for the thousands who have died/Believen' that the Lord was on their side/I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died/Believen' that we all were on their side.

"Well, there's things that never will be right I know/And things need changin' everywhere you go/But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right/You'll never see me wear a suit of white/Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day/And tell the world that everything's OK/But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back/'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black."

Cash took sides in his own songs, and in others' songs he chose to sing. He preferred to take the side of those imprisoned by the law — and by economics. Cash's obituaries are quick to quote the lines at the start of his classic song, "Folsom Prison Blues": "When I was just a baby, my mama told me son/Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns/But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die..."

However, later in the song about a prisoner listening to a passing train, Cash sings: "I bet there's rich folks eatin' in some fancy dining car/They're probably drinkin' coffee and smokin' big cigars/Well I know I had it comin', I know I can't be free/But those people keep a movin' and that's what tortures me."

Though he was not known as an expressly political artist, Cash waded into the controversies of his times with a passion. Like the US troops in Vietnam who idolised him, he questioned the wisdom of that war. And in the mid-1960s, at the height of his success, he released an album that challenged his country's treatment of Native Americans. That album, Bitter Tears, featured a powerful version of Peter LaFarge's "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow", a sad, angry rumination on the mistreatment of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois nation, and of how the US government "broke the ancient treaty with a politician's grin".

Years later, Cash would remember that, as he prepared Bitter Tears, "I dove into primary and secondary sources, immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album, I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage; I felt every word of those songs, particularly 'Apache Tears' and 'The Ballad of Ira Hayes'. I meant every word, too. I was long past pulling my punches."

The Bitter Tears project inspired one of Cash's many disputes with a music industry that wanted him to entertain rather than educate. "I expected there to be trouble with that album, and there was", Cash wrote in his autobiography. "I got a lot of flak from the Columbia Records' bosses while I was recording it — though Frank Jones, my producer, had the sense and courage to let me go ahead and do what I wanted — and when it was released, many radio stations wouldn't play it. My reaction was to write the disc jockeys a letter and pay to have it published as a full-page ad in [the entertainment industry magazine] Billboard. It talked about them wanting to 'wallow in meaninglessness' and noted their 'lack of vision for our music'. Predictably enough, it got me off the air in more places than it got me on."

Even in the 1960s, Cash said, "craven worship of the almighty dollar" was interfering with the ability of artists to get good music heard. More than 30 years later, as Clear Channel and other radio conglomerates sucked what life there was out of US radio, Cash argued, "The very idea of unconventional or even original ideas ending up on 'country' radio in the late 1990s is absurd".

In 1998, after Cash won the Grammy Award for best country album, American Recordings purchased a full-page ad in Billboard that was addressed to the country radio programmers who had failed to play his music. The ad featured a picture of a much younger Cash with his middle finger held high in a fierce gesture of defiance.

Even as Cash was widely honoured in his last years, his music was seldom played on mainstream country radio. And, yet, Johnny Cash kept being heard, singing the last track of a U2 album, appearing in a haunting video that somehow found a place on MTV and joining in that one last "Redemption Song" with a late British punk named Strummer, who recognised that no-one rocked like the "Man in Black".

[From the US Nation, Visit <http://www.thenation.com/index.mhtml>.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 24, 2003.
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