Music Matters: The Man in Black

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.

by Sarah Jaffe
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7 Comments Have Been Posted


Thanks for this post, Sarah! I have always looked up to and admired Johnny Cash too, for all of the reasons you mention. He wasn't afraid to stand up for others, yet he never tried to gloss over his own shortcomings in the process. I think his track record of fighting for marginalized people makes him an excellent model of real masculinity. Also, "Man in Black" is one of my favorite songs of all time! I love how powerful it still is that Cash, a public figure, always chose to dress in black to bring attention to those whom the system ignores. I also love that story you link to about him performing it for Nixon instead of the racist jams Tricky Dick would've preferred.

My understanding has always

My understanding has always been that Cash became more liberal and politically active in the 60s. He was an older white dude so not really part of the cultural revolution that was happening among the younger generation. But he embraced it anyway, and made connections with his own working class roots and the injustices he'd seen during his life. That takes a kind of guts and vision and masculinity that I'd suggest these young bucks don't have today. They are imaging a progressive cultural revolution coming, and they're responding with fear and hate.

This has become my favorite Fred Rogers quote of late. It's by no means political, but I think of the current political environment when I read it. And, it reminds me why Johnny Cash was The Man:
“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it. ”

your posting on Cash

John told me once, when i was still a teen, that he was born 200 years to late because he was a revolutionary at heart. When he was swapping songs with the Broadside workship at the Newport Folk Festival, it was all about the politics....Peter La Farge, Phil Ochs, Seeger, Dylan, the Broadside crew... and John R. Cash.

Those of us who recorded on Folkways and traveled in those circles became known as "Woody's Children" in many circles. And despite the fact that I was close to Woody Guthrie's widow Marjorie, I have to tell you honestly... i always considered myself one of "Johnny's Children" rather than Woody's.

That epoch of his life Johnny Cash was a lot more about folkies and politics than about the "Nashville Sound".

You are VERY right...Cash is VERY personal.

Of all of the response I received for that piece

most of them were defenses of Johnny Cash. Including e-mails from irate family members. I concede that despite turbulent years when he was younger, his life story is largely about being totally devoted to one lady and being a pretty awesome guy too look up to, and that it was probably unfair to lump him in with an unrepentant drunk and the author of the song "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue."

Mea Culpa.

Thank you

Fabulous, illuminating post.

Johnny Cash as Lesbian Icon

An excellent post by Sarah.
"Because Johnny Cash may be the only model for masculinity I turn to."

This made me think of a book I read in the 90s,it has a chapter called 'Johnny Cash As Lesbian Icon',read a preview of the book here:

Cash had guts,he invited Pete Seeger to be a guest on 'The Johnny Cash Show'.

Roseanne Cash is right on politically too,here's a recent interview she conducted with Antonio D'Ambrosio:

Here's another favorite song,it was written by Kris Kristofferson,but Cash makes it own,the chorus is especially great:
'To Beat The Devil':


i couldn't agree more with this post. we need more figures like cash on the left today. i can't believe lady gaga has come to stand for progressive politics in this country. it's sad. that being said i've been really into old crow medicine show and the devil makes three over the last few years. while not 100% up to par on feminist issues, both groups are great and have solid politics as far as their music goes.

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