Johnny Cash was a devout man.
Too many times we try to remould the musician we admire into a variation of our own image.
It’s as if we say,
I can’t possibly like this person unless he is like me…
I identify with him because he is like me…
We have a special bond because he is like me.
Something similar from within draws you to the music, that much is true, but there is no need to redraw the rest of the man to make him fit nicely into the image you have created for him and for yourself.
I'm not sure why we need our heroes to be like us.
I’m not sure why we are forever re-writing history.
When we do this, at best we are just putting our “slant” on the man, at worst we are being intellectually dishonest.
Logic would suggest that there is bound to be traits, behaviours or beliefs that do not coincide with yours.
You can put them aside as peculiarities but, sometimes, they are central to that man and you can’t excise them from the whole..
And, with that in mind I can say, Johnny Cash was a devout man.
When Generation X discovered Johnny and his Rick Rubin albums it was a call to all the secular hipsters to cherry pick what they want from Johnny Cash whilst refusing to recognise his religious beliefs.
But, Johnny was a devout man.
His religious beliefs are not easily separated from his image or persona. Johnny’s secular music is infused with religion, mentions God often and more often than not looks towards spiritual redemption. Likewise his religious music beats with the movement, sings with the clarity and is as unequivocal in purpose as his secular music.
You cannot separate from the other.
I'm not a bible thumper by any stretch of the imagination but it seems to me that Johnny’s music is about faith and hope and to him that is based in his religious beliefs.
When Johnny sings secular songs about the woes of the world he is singing about man turning his back on God.
The drama in the music is in not knowing who is going to win.
When Johnny sings religious songs he is reaffirming his faith in God.
The drama is in finding out how he gets to that point.
The “devil’s music’ may be more fun but it only exists and means something if there is an something for it to oppose.
It’s hard talking about this stuff in this day and age.
The internet is littered with simplistic affirmations of God and religion but real life, at least in Australia, seems to have destroyed both religion and spirituality. The great god of hedonistic narcissism has replaced everything. When good deeds are done then, apparently, those acts are enough in themselves.
Johnny would argue otherwise. He would argue that you need faith.
And this is a man who was human, had faults, doubts, made mistakes and who suffered trials and tribulations.
But Johnny Cash was a devout man.
And that is why he made religious albums.
This is his first religious album. People often refer to his old label mate Elvis and his three gospel albums (not counting his Christmas albums which had religious songs in the track listings) as the high-water mark of pop meets religion but he was practically a sinner in output compared to Johnny.
Johnny released another seven religious albums including narrative soundtracks
That other Sun label stalwart, Jerry Lee Lewis, also put out his fair share of religious music though, arguably, his demons were greater – or at least they were in his mind.
I suspect Elvis started the trend. He was the first rocker to do gospel as gospel. The gospel fervour and passionate signing had already, arguably, affected his rock and pop. Then, in 1957, partially in response to his phenomenal rise to the top and all the surrounding press about the destruction of western civilisation, Elvis sang a traditional gospel tune on his final appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and then he slipped into a studio and recorded gospel tunes for an EP record. Those tracks in 1957 may have been a peace offering but they were songs that were from Elvis’ youth that he could do in his sleep and they are, accordingly, heartfelt.
They also did well in the charts.
Johnny Cash was cut from a similar cloth. Here Cash digs into his own (similar) background. He throws in some self-written spiritual numbers and then, like Elvis, he does them in a variation of the style he has become known for.
For him, like Elvis and I expect Jerry Lee Lewis, this faith and the music that reflects it takes him back to his youth. That youth (for all of them) may have been monetarily poor and full of hardship (have you heard of “The Great Depression”?) but there is something reassuring about childhood. And going to church on Sunday and singing hymns was part of that childhood. As they got older and wanted to relax (to fight doubt, pain and the pressures of fame) singing hymns probably transported them back to their youth.
It’s not an accident that at the recording of an impromptu jam session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash made on Tuesday December 4, 1956 in Memphis (“The famed “Million Dollar Quartet” recordings) that a full one quarter of the songs they do are spirituals.
For me, despite the fact that most of these songs did not exist in the Catholic Hymnal I used as a kid, I get a comfort out of listening to religious music that I don’t always get with other forms of music.
And I'm not talking about fucking contemporary Christian rock.
I'm talking hymns.
things that sound like old hymns.
The beauty of Johnny, and Elvis and Jerry Lee, is they reach back and do old hymns straight but they inject their personalities into the music.
Here Cash is throwing country into the gospel and (not surprisingly perhaps) the mix works.
For me, this trad religious music (along with Benedictine Monk and Gregorian chants) lightens the mind, releases a heavy heart and, importantly, unlike Christian rock, never makes me want to kill someone.
You can take the religious message or not.
You don’t have to,
you must realise
Johnny Cash was a devout man,
this is a devout album.
you can’t separate that devoutness from the man or the music,
whether it be religious or secular.
Tracks (best in italics)
- It Was Jesus – (J. Cash) – Very much a Johnny Cash song. Johnny spelling out his faith very clearly in this narrative about Jesus.
- I Saw A Man – (A. Smith) – A quiet and subversive song (well, subversive in these secular times). Jesus is a man, and he is the son of God.
- Are All The Children In – (J. Cash / O. Greene) – Johnny loves a history lesson and this is a song as a spoken narrative lesson. Malarkey
- The Old Account – (Arr: J Cash) – You have to love the versatility of Johnny’s familiar chunk a lunk beat.
- Lead Me Gently Home – (W.L. Thompson) – A gentle ballad asking for God to "lead me gently home"
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – (Arr & Adapted: J. Cash) – a beautiful song and , here, done in a pure old country style.
- Snow In His Hair – (M. Pack) – a song about a man and his father in the usual country “you must respect your dad like you respect God” fashion. Quite effective.
- Lead Me, Father – (J. Cash) – Johnny eschews his usual beat and lyrics as he follows the usual calling on God to “lead me”
- I Called Him – (J. Cash/ R. Cash Sr) – Pure Cash in beat and delivery. This is the usual “calling on God and he alway answers and pulls me through”. Is this faith or positive thinking ? Whatever gets you through the night I say.
- These Things Shall Pass – (S. Hamblen) – very reverential – everything will, pass in death, God is King etc.
- He'll Be A Friend – (J. Cash) – God is a friend and will guide you
- God Will – (M. Wilkin / Loudermilk) – “when no one will, god will” guide you and lead you – familiar lyrics ….. but good.
This album shows how individual a talent Cash was. His personality is etched across the standards on this album as clearly as it is across the self-written songs. It’s not perfect but …it massages my brain (especially on a Sunday morning) … I'm keeping it.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
I Called Him
- Wikipedia: “Cash left Sun Records because Sam Phillips wouldn't let him record the gospel songs he'd grown up with. Columbia promised him to release an occasional gospel album; this was a success for him to record. The album was Cash’s first and most popular gospel album, and is an example of traditional hymns set to country gospel music”