Johnny's third album for his new label, Columbia, in a year.
The album is groundbreaking in the Johnny Cash world …
It is his first concept album, though it is not a fully fledged concept album like some of his later albums. The songs aren't necessarily linked and the storytelling isn't as cohesive but the album does have a theme beyond just being a batch of old and newly written folk songs.
It is Cash's first folk album. It is not pure folk but it is as close to folk as Cash would come. Almost everything is written by Cash in an old style himself but he also adds some traditional material and occasional oldie like "Clementine" that fits perfectly with the rest of the songs. There are hints of gospel, country, cowboy songs and even old nursey rhymes but it all hangs together well as different aspects of life on the land or , :songs from our soil".. (Well, it's not part of my heritage but I have read John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell so i get the picture)
His boom-chicka-boom sound is preserved but softened and pop-ified somewhat. The introduction of occasional piano and backing vocals (by The Jordanaires) fill out the sound but don't compromise Cash's aesthetic.
Columbia, no doubt, encouraged him to do this album though with some pop concessions like using Elvis' backing vocalists the Jordanaires and having Johnny's voice crisp and deep in the centre of everything. Johnny was going down this path but , I suspect, Columbia would have been happy. The folk boom was beginning to take off – The Kingston Trio were big in the charts and The Weavers, despite being banned, were very popular. The format of a loose concept album also was proven – Marty Robbins had put out an album of country Hawaiian flavoured songs in 1957 ("Songs of the Islands") and Burl Ives and Oscar Brand had put out numerous "themed" albums. Likewise, story songs were very popular – Johnny Horton was riding high in the charts ina style not dissimilar from Johnnt Cs. It was for them a no brainer. As long as Johnny was churning out material of good quality they were happy.
And he was.
So a folk-ish, country-ish pop album about life on the land, in particular the struggles of life on the land was given the green light.
But when you dig deep you see something unsettling. There is a lot of death on this album:
"As many have noted, the album is filled with death. His mother dies (Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses), his father dies (again, Roses), his grandfather dies (Grandfather’s Clock), a native warrior threatens murder (Old Apache Squaw), a carousing miner is murdered behind a saloon on the eve of his wedding (Clementine), three prospectors thirst to death in the desert (Hank and Joe and Me), a cemetery caretaker ponders his forthcoming lonely death (The Caretaker), and it’s all rounded with a meditation on the return of Christ (The Great Speckled Bird). Other songs offer little cheeriness. The farm gets flooded (Five Feet High and Rising), the family ponders asking the rich man in town for help as they starve (The Man on the Hill), and a sailor gets homesick (I Want to Go Home)". https://raisemyglasstothebside.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/album-review-songs-of-our-soil-johnny-cash/
Cash himself said in his "Man in Black" biography that at the time his growing amphetamine and barbiturate dependence caused him to dwell on issues of death. Did that affect his songwriting? I think there is too much pop psychiatry is such assertions … any album dealing with songs of the land, workers and poor people isn't going to be about cocktail parties and soirees. Death and dying are going to be featured in any album with that theme. To exclude it would be disingenuous. It is how you approach the subject that counts …
And despite the darkness there is hope in his voice and a bounce in the music which is not just a concession to pop. There is optimism there and the belief that there is something better around the corner.
What is most convincing is Johnny's voice.
He may be stiffer than he was on his first album for Columbia "The Fabulous Johnny Cash" (1958) and less inspired than on his second "Hymns by Johnny Cash" (1959) but his stiffness could be a stoicness in the face of the material. After all you are telling real life stories (no doubt) of living and dying and Johnny's direct baritone is perfect for that.
Johnny has written songs to cover all aspects of the land (and added some traditional material or oldies that fit in). And, he never did waste time getting to the point. His songs are excellent little dramas in music. They are stories with beginnings and ends and what strikes you most is they communicate so much even though most are under three minutes long … though, at times, you do wish they were a little longer if for no other reason than the mood they create..
Tracks (best in italics)
- Drink To Me – (Cash) – The song is an adaptation of the old English song “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” which was based on a 1616 poem by Ben Jonson derived from Greek verses by Philostratus. On the album "Personal File" Cash revealed that it was the first song he ever performed publicly for a high school event. Quite a pretty song.
- Five Feet High and Rising – (Cash) – a fantastic song. Both funny and dramatic and very catchy.
- The Man on the Hill – (Cash) – a farming family thinks of asking rich man in town for help as they starve. Cheery (not).
- Hank and Joe and Me – (Cash) – echoes of "Cool Water" here a cowboy-ish song where everybody dies. It's a hoot because it's slightly surreal given it's subject matter and the Jordanaires backing vocals echoing the narrator.
- Clementine – (Billy Mize, Buddy Mize) – A variation on the "Oh My Darling Clementine" theme given a newer twist co-written by country singer Billy Mize
- Great Speckled Bird – (Traditional) – Religious zeal and the second coming in this Methodist gospel song. I love the imagery. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Speckled_Bird_(song)
- I Want to Go Home – (Traditional) – known to most people as "Sloop John B". The Kingston Trio recorded the song in 1958 as "The John B. Sails" but it goes back to the 1920s. Okay, The Beach Boys version (1966) is the best but this is pretty nifty also. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sloop_John_B
- The Caretaker – (Cash) – a caretaker in a cemetery … perfect subject for a song? Actually, after observing many a funeral the cemetery caretaker ponders his forthcoming lonely death.
- Old Apache Squaw – (Cash) – an Native American tale which prefigures his later Native American album "Bitter Tears" from 1964.
- Don't Step On Mother's Roses – (Cash) – a sad song about a boy thinking about his deceased mother but gaining strength from the roses she planted. Beautiful.
- My Grandfather's Clock – (Henry Clay Work) – A grandfather and a tall clock are one in the same, metaphorically speaking. This is an old song dating back to 1876 that, apparently, was so popular that the tall clock became known as the "grandfather clock". There you've learnt something. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Grandfather%27s_Clock
- It Could Be You (Instead of Him) – (Vic McAlpin) – McAlpin was a professional songwriter based in Nashville. I think this may be the first recording of this song. A gospel type song with a great message and perfect Jordanaires backing.
Marvellous … It creeps up on you. I'm keeping it.
1959 Five Feet High And Rising Country Singles #14
1959 Five Feet High And Rising The Billboard Hot 100 #76
Five Feet High and Rising
Hank and Joe and Me
I Want to Go Home
It Could Be You (Instead of Him)
- Don Law – Original Recording Producer
RIP Muhammad Ali