The late Johnny Cash was a lot of things at the same time, which has often left journalists a bit confused about the sources of his remarkable passion and creativity. For starters, the man ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. I think that covers most of the bases. Did I miss a hall of fame or two?
Anyway, I think Cash did a great job of covering the essentials when he was asked to describe his tastes in music:
“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God.”
That has to be one of the Top 10 music quotes of all time. That says it all. That’s Johnny Cash, right there — saint, sinner, whiskey, anger, grace and all.
Anyway, the venerable BBC took a shot, the other day, at a truly newsworthy subject — trying to describe the legacy of Cash and his art in terms of his impact on the movement to reform U.S. prisons. The goal was to get past the legendary concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin and look for the roots of Cash’s activism. Here’s one of the summary passages:
Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the “Man in Black” performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights. …
The roots of Cash’s empathy lie as far back as 1953, when as a 21-year-old radio operator in the US Air Force, he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and was inspired to write a song. Folsom Prison Blues, released two years later, after Cash had signed to Sun Records, turned the young singer into a star.
The song, and in particular the now-notorious line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” was sung with such raw menace that many assumed Cash knew what he was talking about. …
This is one of the ironies of Cash’s prison reform crusade. The very thing that made convicts connect with him, and US senators hang on his every word — the air of authenticity that stemmed from the belief he had served hard time himself — was in reality a misconception.
This story captures the rough and flawed side of Cash’s story, the grim realities that stuck him in quite a few jails for overnight visits following rampages linked to alcohol, rage, drugs and a variety of other weaknesses. For the BBC team, that seemed to be the heart of the Cash story.
Well, it’s half the story. Want to guess the side of Cash’s life that didn’t make it into the story, other than one or two timely hints?
Cash, you see, was seeking more than prison reform. He was shooting at a bigger spiritual target. Here’s the chunk of this story that comes the closest to hitting the mark. The key voice is that of biographer Michael Streissguth.
“In the 1960s in America, there was a growing realisation that prisons were ineffective,” says Streissguth. “They were merely training inmates to be better criminals. So the recidivism rate, people coming back to incarceration, was very high.”
Cash, an ardent believer in the power of rehabilitation over punishment, became the go-to voice for the media on this new hot topic.
“I think Cash had a feeling that somehow he had been endowed with this fame in order to do something with it, and one of the ways he could do something with it was talking about prison reform,” says Streissguth, who also believes Cash’s deeply-held religious beliefs were a factor in his championing of the cause. “He connected with the idea that a man could be redeemed.”
And? And? Is there more to this important Cash crusade than “deeply-held religious beliefs”?
Once again, let me stress that BBC did a fine job unpacking the darker side of Cash that caused him to identify with the lives of prisoners. Some of the political angles are covered, too. But was there something else in his art, something specific in his biography, something worthy of journalistic attention, that might help explain his fierce belief in the need for personal redemption?
Here’s a hint: It had something to do with all of those nights when Cash showed up to speak and sing at Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades.
At one of those rallies, Cash put it this way:
“I have been a professional entertainer,” said Cash, at a 1989 Graham crusade in his home state of Arkansas. “My personal life and problems have been widely publicized. There have been things said about me that made people ask, ‘Is Johnny Cash really a Christian?’
“Well, I take great comfort in the words of the apostle Paul who said, ‘What I will to do, that I do not practice. But what I hate, that I do.’ And he said, ‘It is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells within me. But who,’ he asks, ‘will deliver me from this body of death?’ And he answers for himself and for me, ‘Through Jesus Christ the Lord.’”
So, was it necessary for the BBC team to dedicate half of this story to Cash’s Christian faith and its role in his own personal redemption?
Probably not, methinks. Would it have been good to have followed up on that amazing Streissguth quote about redemption, perhaps even quoting something relevant from Cash’s own writings? Maybe this side of Cash’s prison-reform work deserved a paragraph or two?