Monday, August 6, 2012


Man In Black’s Gospel Recordings

Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
             By Leonard Cohen, as recorded by Johnny Cash

By Doc Lawrence
NASHVILLE. In life and death, Johnny Cash remains almost impossible to categorize. Complex, paradoxical, contradictory and often controversial are, regarding his career and music, hollow adjectives. Country? Yes. Rockabilly? One of the founding fathers right along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and Sam Phillips. He hobnobbed with preachers, Hollywood stars, rock and roll greats and bounced, according to his own pain-filled words, between sin and salvation. Few who knew him or saw a live performance could doubt his truthfulness.

His flaws defined his everlasting greatness.

Johnny’s gospel recordings are featured on a just released CD: “Johnny Cash- The Greatest Gospel Songs.” Nothing unheard before, but for the uninitiated, it’s worth a listen. I believe that Johnny would have been a wonderful college lecturer at a great university like Vanderbilt, teaching a course about understanding the South (and the South understanding itself.) The mix of gospel with other popular music forms from white and black cultures would likely have been presented as naturally by this farm kid from Arkansas as eating catfish with fried green tomatoes. The great journalist Marshall Frady described the South as “America’s Ireland” and that’s just about a bull’s-eye.

I met Johnny several times and interviewed him. He was engaging and friendly. His voice was what I imagined as like the voice of God. He was remarkably empathetic and from what I gather quite generous. The live concerts included his singing to prisoners in Georgia during the early 70’s, and along with my mother, watching him sing as an introduction for Rev. Billy Graham at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. I saw a BBC television interview in London with David Frost where Johnny was crusading for AIDS research

He was, without any effort, dominant, overshadowing all celebrities. I think his power-so terrifically magnetic—war rooted in his simplicity. The all black clothing, dark hair and eyes, songs with uncomplicated lyrics but loaded with power and irony, and an unyielding respect for truth.

Johnny Cash did not talk down to anyone. His best works are songs about his own failures, his sins, his duplicity, his ongoing fight with the devil where the devil often won, and from time to time a warning that he had the capacity to inflict pain. I held on to every single word. Johnny, to quote Carl Sandburg, was “all men, every man.”

There are wonderful songs on the new release including Rev. Thomas Dorsey’s masterpiece, “Peace in the Valley.” Johnny was not bound to music forms and recorded what he liked with whom he admired. Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and of course, his beloved June. U2’s Bono, another friend of Johnny’s said  that “not since John The Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness”

Johnny Cash sings some terrific gospel on the new recording and stays true to how he described himself:

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.”

1 comment: