In Memoriam: John R. Cash
by chad September 29, 2003
Editor's Note: Chad wrote this and submitted it almost two weeks ago, but my busy schedule did not permit me to publish it sooner. Still, what's contained is not diminished by two weeks' time.
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
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
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.
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
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