Monday, March 1, 2010
A Rebel To the End
"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
So asks the book of Corinthians 15:55, which Johnny Cash chose to reference in the one original composition that appears on American VI: Ain't No Grave. That the Man in Black was by this point facing the imminent reality of death should be surprising to nobody. The ten songs that make up this final installment in the American Recordings series were recorded with Rick Rubin mere months after Cash's wife June had passed away. He was so frail that he spent most of the sessions sitting down.
And yet, it's hard to imagine another artist able to greet the reaper with such graceful defiance. To be sure, death had always played a large role in Cash's repertoire. But with his health deteriorating, the gravity of the situation seems to drip off of American VI. The pared-down arrangements, Cash's weathered singing voice, even the release date--what would have been his 78th birthday--all convey a haunting sense of mortality.
Or is it immortality? The album's title track sees a rapturous gospel song retooled into a slow, plodding dirge. The song's tone is far from resigned, however. Rather, it sounds as if Cash is defying death itself to keep him off this mortal coil as he declares that "there ain't no grave can hold my body down."
It's a lyric chilling in its profundity. Since Cash's death in 2003, there have been no shortage of forces who have sought to manipulate and reclaim his legacy for themselves. It might seem an easy task. After all, dead men can't argue, and figures on the conservative right have been notably smug in morphing this most rebellious of country legends into one of their own.
It's easy to imagine the likes of Glenn Beck squirming at this batch of songs, though. Like the other parts that make up the American records, American VI is mostly cover versions. But notably missing are the unique takes on modern artists' work (the version of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" notwithstanding). Old favorites feature prominently here--songs that Johnny had long loved to perform and record. And in their own way, they reveal a stunning answer to any confusion on whose side this artist stood.
One thing that is never in doubt is the deep love and knowledge that Cash held for American music. Several songs are taken directly from the rich history of country music's golden age--Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind," Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore." Others reflect how truly eclectic and far-reaching Cash's influence could be.
In May of 1962, after a horrific performance at Carnegie Hall, a despondent Cash found himself approached by Ed McCurdy, a socialist and folksinger who had just barely escaped the grip of McCarthyism into the thriving Greenwich Village folk scene. McCurdy ended up taking Cash to the Gaslight Cafe, a favorite hub in the Village.
McCurdy was a major figure in his own right. In 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World War, he penned "(Last Night) I Had the Strangest Dream," a stirring anti-war missive that became such a hit that other folks mainstays like Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan would record their own versions.
"Strangest Dream" also held a massive resonance with Cash, and appears on American VI. His most famous performance of the song was at Madison Square Garden in 1969, where he recalled for the audience a recent conversation between himself and a reporter who asked about his visit to the troops in Vietnam. "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" asked the reporter. "No, no, that don't make me a hawk," Cash told the crowd. "But I said if you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, and then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer 'em up, so they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."
Johnny never did say what his thoughts were on the war on Iraq, but songs like these, recorded in the months following the initial invasion, make it pretty clear what he thought.
Then there's the version of "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," a gentle rambler originally written by Tom Paxton. Another player in the Village scene, Paxton essentially became recognized at "Dylan before Dylan." Still writing songs today, he's applied a deft song-writing skill to protests against war, racism, poverty and corruption. Knowing this places songs like "Can't Help But Wonder" in a different light, as if Cash himself is asking not just where he is going, but more broadly what is to become of us, the human race.
In all these respects, American VI represents an unmistakable statement on what kind of artist Cash really was. Far beyond the borders of the country mainstream, he stood as a living, breathing example of American music's indefatigable humanity. It's a tradition that's been hidden from us, no doubt about it. Much like Cash's own legacy, it's been obscured under half-truths and omissions.
Cash himself would have looked at these manipulations with clear disdain. But then, he never really did have much time for the accepted orthodoxy. American VI: Ain't No Grave shows that even in death, Johnny Cash can't stand being silenced.
This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.