By Shalom Goldman, Duke University
Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, and as we approach the tenth anniversary of his death, his reputation as an American musical master seems only to grow. His recordings continue to sell briskly, particularly the Bootleg items released by Columbia Records. When I mentioned him to the college freshmen in my classes, who were born in 1994-5, they all knew Cash’s music. Many had seen the 2005 film about Cash, Walk the Line.
That film was very good at depicting the sex, drugs, and rock and roll aspect of Cash’s life and art, but, like most Hollywood movies, it steered clear of religion in general and of the Evangelical Protestant churches in particular. What the film does not convey is that Johnny Cash and his wife and singing partner, June Carter Cash, were deeply religious people whose personal and professional lives were imbued with a sense of spiritual struggle and religious engagement. Throughout their lives together they spoke and sang of “being in Heaven together.”
Brought up in a devout Baptist home, Johnny Cash was introduced to music through the local church in whose choir his mother sang. She taught Johnny scores of hymns and songs, and, in order to accompany his mother, he learned to play the guitar when he was ten years old. Many decades later, Cash told an interviewer that, of the over two hundred albums that he had recorded, his favorite was My Mother’s Hymn Book, in which he sang songs that his mother sang in church.
Among those moving songs is “I’m Bound for the Promised Land,” which opens with an evocation of the singer standing on “Jordan’s stormy banks.” For Cash’s mother and the other members of her rural Baptist church in Tennessee, the view from “Jordan’s stormy bank” to “the tranquility of the Promised Land” to which they were bound, was a metaphor for the heavenly reward that awaits the righteous when they cross the threshold of death and enter paradise. Young Johnny absorbed that worldview, but for him the words “Promised Land” were to take on another layer of significance. June Carter too grew up with the same biblical references and songs, many of them recorded by her family. For the Cash family, and many other American Christians of their time, those words would move out of the realm of metaphor and into the realm of political reality as they came to signify the newly-declared State of Israel
If post-World War II events would not have intervened, “Canaan,” and “Jordan” would have remained a rich American metaphor. But the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 changed that. As historian David McCullough noted in his biography of President Harry Truman, most American Christians were enthusiastic about the establishment of the state of Israel and, in granting diplomatic recognition to Israel just minutes after statehood was declared, Truman was following the will of the American people.
For many Protestant Americans aware of political developments in the post-war period, the “return of the Jews to their land” was understood as the fulfillment of the biblical promise. To those less devout, Israel’s creation may not have been understood as divine act, but it made sense to many because the metaphor of the promised land was so deeply embedded in American culture and religious thought. Hadn’t that biblical metaphor served the colonists and the Founding Fathers? And now, with the dramatic “rebirth” of Israel, that metaphor, so potent in American history, had become a reality. And this time, it was not in the “American Zion,” but in the original Holy Land in the Middle East.
Johnny Cash’s life and career exemplify this biblical understanding of modern history. In the 1960s, Cash became intrigued by the story of the new Jewish state and, in 1966 at the age of thirty-four, he made the first of many visits (or as he termed them, “pilgrimages”) to Israel. The popular Pentecostal preacher, Oral Roberts, had been on his first pilgrimage to Israel a few years earlier, and this influenced Cash in his decision to visit the Holy Land and to see the Christian holy sites. It was a brief visit and might have been the singer’s only one to Israel. But, two years later, his religious, personal, and professional lives were to converge in a way that would make Israel an abiding focus in his life.
Viewers of Walk the Line and all Johnny Cash aficionados know of Johnny Cash’s struggles with substance abuse, depression, and the “temptations” of the wilder side of the country music industry. The film’s narrative and the story told in Cash’s autobiographies are that Johnny Cash crawled out of his cave (both real and metaphorical) with the help of June Carter Cash, to whom he was married in 1969. What is not as well known (and is not depicted in Walk the Line) is that June insisted that they take their honeymoon in Israel. As June understood Johnny’s destiny, he could only be fully redeemed by being in the Holy Land. June told John of a dream she had in which she saw him standing on a mountain in Galilee preaching to the multitudes with a Bible in his hand. One might say that in June Carter Cash’s understanding, her new husband could be saved by Jesus only if he were to walk in Jesus’ footsteps—not only in a metaphorical manner, but in an actual manner. Their 1969 trip to Israel was the first of many; between that pilgrimage and their last in the late 1990s, they visited the country five times.
On a subsequent visit to Israel, Cash and his wife were inspired to make a film set in the biblical landscapes they had described on their Holy Land album. Gospel Road, filmed in 1971, was a documentary-style narration of the life of Jesus. Cash was the narrator, and June Carter played Mary Magdalene. Though it was a commercial flop on its 1972 release in the U.S., Gospel Road, with music by Kris Kristofferson, Cash, and other songwriters, had a long “afterlife” on college campuses in the South and the Midwest. The film, whose screenings were sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, was seen by many Evangelical Christians in the 1970s and ’80s.
In the opening moments of Gospel Road, Johnny Cash reenacts his wife’s vision of him preaching to the multitudes in Galilee. We see him on a mountaintop (it is Mount Arbel near the Sea of Galilee) holding a Bible and inviting the film’s viewers to join him in a journey through the Holy Land in the footsteps of Jesus. The film then moves to a retelling of Jesus’ life. Cash’s introductory remarks serve to remind us that American Evangelical enthusiasm for Israel is about Jesus and the history of Christianity, not about the modern Jewish experience—though the Jewish “return to the Land” is understood by many Christians as the fulfillment of prophecy. For the hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit Israel each year, the Holy Land is primarily a Christian Holy Land and only secondarily a Jewish homeland. For these Christians the state of Israel is significant because of the Bible, not because it is the realization of the ideas of Zionist thinkers like Theodor Herzl.
A few years after Gospel Road was released, John and June returned to Israel. They were joined by their children, who were baptized, like their parents, in the Jordan River. The Cash family visits, and their increasing prominence in the American music industry, brought them to the attention of Israeli government officials, who treated them like visiting royalty and facilitated their travel within the country.
In the mid 1990s, when Israeli cities, and particularly Jerusalem, were attacked by Palestinian suicide bombers, tourism to Israel fell off sharply. The Cashes, now in their sixties, returned to Israel for a fifth visit, and with their own money produced a TV film titled Return to the Holy Land. Throughout the film—a musical travelogue through pastoral, bucolic sites associated with the life of Jesus—the Cashes assure their American viewers that “Israel is as beautiful and tranquil as ever,” and they should not hesitate to visit it soon. There is no mention in the film of the conflict with the Palestinians, nor of any internal debates or dissension within Israel. Despite the changes in Israel, and in world attitudes toward the Jewish state, John and June Carter Cash’s “Zeal for Zion” remained undiminished.
June Carter Cash died in May of 2003 and Johnny “joined her in heaven” only five months later. Ten years after their deaths they are still remembered fondly—or should I say reverently—by their many fans in Israel. In both the metaphoric and actual senses they had “reached the Promised Land.”
Shalom Goldman, Religion Department, Duke University