Johnny Cash is a good bard for a pandemic.
He is good for most pain, because he felt pain, but endured and still knew the power of love. Some of loves redeemed: family, God, country. A few misplaced loves destroyed, but Cash survived. His vices were those of excess, based on fractured affection, misdirected desire, and addictions. Johnny Cash rarely was motivated by hate.
There is always hope in love.
He was a red-white-and-blue patriot, but one who could listen to the Vietnam protestors and see their point. He was always for the poor and the marginalized. He loved Jesus, because Jesus was on the side of the poor. The tyrannical man pushed down the weak, but the Son of Man was coming around. Cash knew the bills always had to be paid and that apocalypse comes at the end of every life.
He died singing about a greater Apocalypse coming. This pandemic is not that, of course, but The Man in Black understood that our pains are forerunners. None of this is ugly in Cash, He could also sing We Will Meet Again without any irony, because he knew Jesus made it possible that the circle would be unbroken.
Johnny Cash endures, because Cash knew pain, was honest, broken, and kept stumbling forward toward Jesus and redemption. His music, jumbled up with the faults of his life and times, is uneven. Cash covered songs, took chances, including ones that he had no business taking (No Expectations). Any man that can give us a ballad of James Garfield, a nearly forgotten American hero, can do anything. Like most of us, Cash did not live up to his aspirations, but he never denied his sins and he became, overtime, a better man.Cash lived into this millennium, but much of his music has roots in the nineteenth century. As late as 1900, half the country farmed and Cash knew some of the people from the last areas where those patterns lingered. There were virtues to those folk, a rootedness and heath, that is now lost, but Cash captured. They had vices too and limits and Cash recorded those as well.
Cash was a troubadour of hard living, hard times, that (often!) would go ahead and become a party or a church revival.
Many people are called during this pandemic to labor hard. Many are Cash’s people: the truck drivers, the factory workers, the policemen, firemen, the troops. He would point out that many of the pandemic’s “essential workers” are ignored, mocked by the media, and underpaid by the man, until the rest of us need them. They would remind Cash of the Vietnam veterans.
We should hear Cash on that too.
Mostly we should hear Cash for the music. We know hard times. He sings of hard times and hard men and women. He hadn’t found them whiny, indulgent, or morose. Sad? A good bit. Ready for some fun? You bet.
That’s not a bad soundtrack for us: sad, wearing black, praying, singing, laughing.
God bless America. May the soul of Johnny Cash Rest In Peace.