Johnny Cash was buried today. People got together. Some famous, some not. Some talked, some sang. Someone dug a hole in Tennessee and laid a legend in it.
My dad plays guitar, he has for as long as I can remember, and one of his earliest covers was Folsom Prison Blues. It's probably Cash's most famous song, his most notorious, anyway, containing the infamous line, "I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die." That's my earliest recollection of Cash's music: I liked that song. I hated country music, but I liked that song. That song had something in it, something haunting, something melancholic that appealed to my Hamlet-esque inclinations, but also to that "live hard, die young" demeanor buried in all young boys. But I soon found that the real genius in that song was not the futility nor the melancholy, but the hope, if only a sliver. Picture a man, rotting in a prison for murder, and, to make his plight just a little worse, he hears a train coming by every day, reminding him that he isn't free. There's the melancholy, the sadness. But the final verse ends hopefully, almost optimistically. The man declares that if some day he is ever freed, he's going to move that train far from Folsom Prison, and let its lonesome whistle blow his blues away.
That song is a good example for a lot of Cash's music. The songs he sang set scenes of murder and gloom and utter depravity. But in the end there's always that glimmer, that speck of hope pushing through the weight of it all. You take all that weight that's pushing you down and make it work for you. You get by however you can. This, I imagine, was also a good metaphor for Cash's life.
He had a lifelong addiction to pills, relapsing as recently as the mid-80s. But he always seemed to bounce back. Persist. Persevere. The last few years, I remember reading reports at least once that the "Man in Black" wouldn't be with us much longer. Then, the next month I'd see his new album on the record store shelf. He was always there.
He was a performer who came to popularity in a time when bright colors and sequins were the norm. He said fuck the norm and wore black. In his song Man in Black Cash explains why he wears the black, explaining that the black represents the oppressed, the downtrodden, the "prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he's a victim of the times," and until we make things right, he'll wear the black. The sequins he originally rebelled against symbolized the money and commerciality into which country music had sunk. The people Cash knew didn't dress like that. They didn't wear ruffled shirts and purple cowboy hats. They wore simple, plain clothes. Black.
His rebellion helped spark the "Outlaw" movement in country music, a movement that strove to put the emphasis back on the music, not the packaged, overproduced performer. They wore what they wanted, sang about what they wanted, did what they wanted. Unfortunately, much of that was self-destructive in nature, but at the same time, that's what made Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and a handful of others so appealing. They said fuck you, you're not going to tell us how to play, or live.
And I suppose that's why I gravitated towards Cash and his music. Like I said, I hated country music, but in college I came back around to it, especially the Outlaws. Most collegians are in some stage of rebellion, be it against their parents, their instructors, their society. It's a time of self-discovery, self-empowerment. I discovered writing, and, so, was drawn to singer-songwriter types. I was turned on to Bob Dylan for his songwriting and Cash for his songs. Imagine my delight when foraging through my parents' old records, I found not only Dylan's Nashville Skyline, but also Cash's At Folsom Prison. For the liner notes of Nashville Skyline, Cash wrote a rambling poem, describing Dylan's genius. "?Here-in is a hell of a poet," Cash wrote. I couldn't disagree.
But this guy? THIS GUY? Whose songs my DAD sang? An old COUNTRY singer? Needless to say, I was skeptical, but I listened to his music, and the taboos were blown away. Don't get me wrong, the songs Cash sang weren't T.S. Eliot. They're not complicated structures of metaphor and irony. But it's the simplicity that gives them their power. Coupled with Cash's utterly unique voice, something special occurs. You can't deny it. I can barely describe it.
And that's my advice to aspiring Cash fans everywhere. Do'?t just be drawn to the persona, don't claim to like the man, but not the music. To me they're one in the same. You can't claim to like one without the other. Go to the songs. There's something for everyone.
I don't claim to be a Johnny Cash expert. I'm only a casual fan, not a fanatic. But there was something about this man's music that was special to me, that spoke to me, spoke to a lot of people. And that's why I grieve. Not so much for the man, but for the music that's been muted, the songs left unsung. And today, that's why I picture Bob Dylan standing over a hole in Tennessee softly saying, "Here-in is a hell of a poet."