Ode to Johnny Cash
As Anna revealed recently, we have lately, after seeing the movie Walk the Line developed a love for the music of Johnny Cash, and while Anna elaborated on her girlcrush on the portrayer of June Carter’s part, Reese Witherspoon (a girlcrush that I totally share, mind you), we both feel that Johnny Cash has earned an ode, too. So I’ve decided to take it upon me to write a tribute to this long legged guitar pickin’ man. Let me start out by saying that like Anna, I was completely taken aback by the impact Mr. Cash’s music has had on me. As readers of this blog will know, I’m an avid opera lover, and I cannot remember the last time I found myself surrendering so completely to a non-operatic composer, and of course I’ve been scratching my head with puzzlement, trying to figure out why it is that Mr. Johnny Cash has managed to win me over the way he has.
His music is catchy, to be sure, but so is the music of lots of other artists. Mr. Cash was talented, yes, but so are a lot of other contemporary musicians, and I have been hauled by various well-meaning boyfriends through endless lines of CDs with highly estimated names such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, Captain Beefheart, Neil Young and whathaveyou, none of which ever managed to make any lasting impression on me.
Get rhythm when you get the blues
The only thing I’m able to chalk it down to is that overwhelming, life-assuring, triumphant openness to the joy of music that I find in his music. Performing throughout his career songs as completely different as the arch-American, folk-y country song “The Wreck of the Old 97” and the dark, urban, metrosexual “Own Personal Jesus”, Johnny Cash always seemed to be willing to go, open-mindedly, wherever the music led him, and this openness is the most important factor to me in all his works.
Because it’s always there, that bubbling curiosity that playful exploration. His songs are most often introduced with a few, very simple notes played by the bass in a steady, predictable pace and rhythm. But then, through his composition, through his guitar solos and the epically dynamic progression of his stanzas, he lets each of the songs develop their own personal style and expression. An example is the song “Walk the line”: At first glance a pretty dull composition, almost like a finger exercise for a child; no bridge or any real chorus, just the same eight bars repeated five times in different keys. Upon studying the song a little closer, however, one will find, that this is the point exactly: It is indeed an exercise! As the lyrics betray, the song is about a man’s love for a woman, and how this love makes him want to struggle to become a better man, and it is this struggle that we find in the simplistic song. Rather than going off into extremities, rather than throwing himself into daring and sophisticated bridges and choruses, the persona of the song keeps to his straight and narrow path, and practises his eight little bars with the obedience of a child at lessons, practising his finger exercises and scales.
I love that! And it’s everywhere in his songs, at least the way I see it. You can hear the train’s puff-puffing in “Folsom Prison Blues”, you can hear the shoeshine boy’s rhythmic movements in “Get rhythm”, and the manic tempo and high notes of “Cocaine Blues” urgently mimic the reckless state of mind of the cocaine addict. It’s music at its finest, I think: It takes over when words fail you and expresses so much more than words ever could.
“…I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die”
That being said, however, I really love Johnny Cash’s lyrics, too. They hold a musicality that allows the lyrics to blend beautifully with the music, and with a ruthless, almost brutal honesty that becomes particularly moving in the songs in which Cash speaks on behalf of the desperado. The inmate’s painful recollection of his own cold-blooded murder of a man in Reno in “Folsom Prison Blues”, his own fate contrasted by the carefree, innocent travellers in the dining car of the passing train, the wife-murderer’s outcry to the Lord in “Cocaine Blues” and his breathless, minute recollection of his trial; all this becomes so incredibly moving through Cash’s scarce and coarse lyrics. And the fact that Cash did special concerts in prisons, wanting to raise a debate about the wretched conditions in American prisons only makes his lyrical tributes to the desperados more sympathetic.
Hotter than a pepper sprout
Which brings me to the last part of this little ode. Because apart from Cash’s artistic achievements, he just seemed like a really likeable person. He was quirky (those weird movements with his chin! The pacing back and forth on the stage! That deep voice!), and charismatic, he had a sense of humour (“A boy named Sue” – ‘Nuff said.), and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m totally crushing on the guy. Add to this the story of his own personal suffering: Addicted to narcotics and booze, arrested and going broke, then sobering up and getting his life back on track – he really was all those things he sung about. A desperado, and then an obedient child doing finger exercises.
And then of course, he was in love. And as Anna’s and my own dreamy facial expressions when we’re watching the proposal scene in Walk the Line will testify, it is just impossible not to be moved by such a strong-lived love as the one between Johnny Cash and June Carter. Anna sent me this link yesterday of a you-tubed interview with Johnny and June from 1980, and I cannot believe what an adorable couple they made.
*Sigh*. May they both rest in peace. Thank you for the music.