"Music is your own experience,
your own thoughts,
your wisdom."
Charie Parker.

 



The great journalist Miriam Longino described Johnny Cash’s voice as “like hearing God sing.” She was right. The Man in Black had a vocal quality in his profound words and songs that challenged us. Cash could make you uncomfortable and sometimes he was terrifying. But, until the end, he remained the embodiment of the South and all that is good in the region. Billy Graham once introduced him at a mega-event in Atlanta as the person who best personified America.
Johnny Cash held back nothing. He wore his problems and emotions for the world to see. In pain for most of his life, he endured and never complained. The pain of others affected him. The downtrodden, the prisoner, the homeless, the prostitute, the addict, the despised, and how they were treated brought out his outrage which he expressed so effectively through his songs.

Listen to Cash’s version of the Kris Kristofferson masterpiece, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” You’ll never feel the same about the homeless.


“On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
Lord I wish I was stoned.
‘Cause there’s something about a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there’s nothing short of dying,
Half as mournful as the sound,
Of sleeping city sidewalks,
And Sunday morning coming down.”


On the day of his death, college stations throughout the country played tributes to Johnny Cash. Georgia State University’s station dedicated 24 hours of programming to The Man In Black, which wasn’t so surprising since it was younger listeners who had embraced the music he recorded on American Records under the guidance of rock producer Rick Rubin. Listen, if you dare, to all the emotions in “Pain,” the Nine Inch Nails song covered by Cash, who offers anyone his “empire of dirt.” It is a journey into the abyss of death.

Cash, of course, recorded his own compositions, one of the last being his look at the Book of Revelations. “There’s a man going around, taking names,” he warned. But, he was comfortable with the songs of scores of others from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond. It’s hard to imagine any artist doing a finer interpretation of U2’s peace anthem, “One,” than Cash. “Love is a temple, love’s a higher ground,” Cash reaffirmed. Bono, who accompanied Cash with his guitar on the recording, responded: “Not since John the Baptist in the Wilderness has their been a more effective voice for the common man than Johnny.”

Although he never murdered anyone or served time in prison, Johnny Cash divided his musical journey into a trilogy, “Love, Murder and God.” By his own testimony, he, like most of us, was badly flawed. He found refuge from demons (his song, “The Beast in Me,” is honest and forthright) in his strongly held religious beliefs and abiding love for his wife, June, and his children. Friendships were precious and several legends I interviewed during the past three years including Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had high praise for Johnny Cash.

Awards, accolades and tributes all are destined to gather dust on a shelf. Cash had all these and much more plus significant wealth. He gave famed actor Robert Duvall $8 million to help finance the production of Duvall’s screenplay, “The Apostle,” after Hollywood gave him the cold shoulder. Duvall was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.

I saw Johnny Cash five times. The most memorable was in 1972 when he came to Atlanta and perfomed at his expense to the first group of prisoners who pioneered Georgia’s work release program. He sang about how much he hated prisons and loved danger and missed his younger days when he could raise a little hell. The prisoners loved it. So did the free world audience.

I’ll always remember Johnny Cash as a towering figure who was addicted in equal portions to harmful substances and a genuine love of life. In one song I have, he prays that God will give him some credit for “never being mean or small, or hurting a man when he was down.” I believe there is a new singer and guitar picker in Heaven today. He’s the only one allowed to wear a black suit.

The most moving song I ever heard was Johnny Cash’s version of the gut wrenching Leonard Cohen song. It was made for Johnny:


“Like a bird on a wire.
Like a drunk in
a midnight choir.
I have tried
in my way
to be
free.”


 

Other pages:

Hank Ballard, creator of The Twist

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Elvis in the Fifties

Atlanta's Freddy Cole

The X-Miss Americas

Waylon Jennings

Jazz Funeral of a Crescent City legend

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on tour

Opera Theatre in St. Louis

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