BBC probes Johnny Cash’s vague interest in redemption

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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.

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A killer like us? AP reporter evokes inmate’s humanity

Last week, I railed on the Journalism of Narcissism.

Specifically, I critiqued a first-person account by a writer who said he hid in a church bathroom and pretended to be a true believer while reporting on Brazilian evangelicals in New York.

That post prompted regular reader FW Ken to comment:

How can you write at any depth if people don’t open up to you, and how do people open up if you don’t engage with them. I’m not suggesting extensive self-disclosure or getting overly personal, but if your subjects are really people to you, you have to be a person to them.

My quick reply:

Totally agree, FW Ken.

Now for something totally different: How about a first-person piece that actually works?

I’m referring to an Associated Press reporter’s story over the weekend recounting her experience covering a recently executed murderer. In a striking way, AP’s Dena Potter demonstrates the power of — believe it or not — high journalistic integrity and compassion in gaining a source’s trust. That’s opposed to, say, deception and tricks.

Potter wrote a straight news account last week of Robert Gleason Jr.’s death in Virginia’s electric chair. But her weekend essay — headlined “A killer like me” by one news organization — highlights the flashes of ordinary humanity she glimpsed in the cold-blooded murderer:

[Read more...]


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