Johnny Cash, “The Man In Black” (Click for lyrics)
A few months ago, I read a lovely post on country music by Garland Grey over at Tiger Beatdown, and I was quite enjoying myself until he included Johnny Cash as a “toxic model for masculinity” and I hit the roof internally*.
Because Johnny Cash may be the only model for masculinity I turn to. (Well, aside from Springsteen, about whom more later!)
And now again, as the U.S. writhes under the weight of its own myths, I go back to Cash as well.
Nick Cave, yesterday, was the dark side of this myth, but Johnny Cash is the better side of it. The one that embraced people different from him, the one that fought the weight of his own addictions and tried even in the throes of them to bring light to those worse off than he.
I first fell in love with Johnny Cash back when I was living in New Orleans, I think, and still forming a political identity that was my own and not just that of the punk bands I listened to. Cash’s prison concerts and opposition to the death penalty mirrored my own thoughts, and in songs his murder ballads cried out for understanding that every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.
He needed some of that understanding himself from time to time, certainly. He was a rotten husband to his first wife, and his struggle with drugs didn’t magically end with June Carter like the movie says it did.
He wrote some plainspoken, beautiful love songs, often about the humbling effects of being in love, and he wrote songs for the working-class people he grew up with. He wrote of a mythic South and West that were big and open and had room enough for all.
To really trace the progressive politics of Johnny Cash, I can’t recommend enough Antonino D’Ambrosio’s book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears**, which places Cash in the center of a web of social-justice-minded artists whose influences came together and set Cash to the making of his most overtly political record—subtitled “Ballads of the American Indian***”—right after his biggest success.
That album’s mostly forgotten now, though “Ira Hayes” makes it onto some best-of collections, and is a perfect example: a song about the blank meaninglessness of war to those who fight it and the way it leaves them all too often broken when they come home to a country that doesn’t know quite what to do with them, and also a song about a Pima man who fought for a country that had oppressed his people from the time they landed.
Cash, like Springsteen, is often appropriated by those who boil his politics down to “Rah-Rah USA.” From his appearance before Nixon, where he refused to play the racist songs Nixon requested, and instead played “What Is Truth?” “Man in Black” and “Ira Hayes” to his daughter Rosanne’s Twitter comment this week, “John Boehner: Stop using my dad’s name as a punchline, you asshat,” Cash and his family have fought his appropriation by the Right and proudly proclaimed what they really stand for.
For me, Cash is personal. I have a tattoo on my foot, traced in Cash’s own handwriting, that reads “I walk the line.” It’s a love song, yes, but it’s one phrase that means so many things. I’m certainly not of his generation, but for me his voice was always soothing, something that reminded me of the better side of American male archetypes. A father figure different than my own—one larger than life, sure, but one good example of what I want from men. Not perfection, but struggle.
And for the U.S. right now, for a left struggling to figure out why white working class men have deserted progressive politics in droves and adopted the resentment honed by Nixon and perfected by the Tea Party, I don’t think there could be a better teacher than Johnny Cash.
*addendum: the Sarah in comments defending Johnny is not me, though I legitimately could not remember if it was me until I realized that if I’d seen a panel on Johnny Cash’s politics at a Socialism conference, that is not something I’d ever forget.
**I interviewed Antonino for the book, and we’ve become friends through a mutual love for Cash.
***Not the name we’d use now, and again, not perfect, but a sincere expression of solidarity with people fighting their own battles against the government–and certainly not the most visible cause of the 1960s.