I’ve recently been reading John M. Alexander’s book The Man In Song, which is basically – as the foreword by country singer Larry Gatlin puts it – “yet another Johnny Cash book.” The novel idea in Alexander’s book is to approach the Man In Black and his life via his songs, discussing the connection and relationship with the lyrics Cash wrote, the songs of others he chose to record and took to heart, and the recurring themes of these songs, with his life and times. An interesting approach, which I haven’t seen done before to this extent in any Cash book. Coupled with some gorgeous pictures, I do think it’s fair to say the book is worth a read even though I do have many reservations and think that quite often Alexander is too uncritical in his analysis, liberal with his praise and fanboyish in his appraisals.
However, one thing he does absolutely right is to emphasize the importance of one song in particular, What Is Truth from 1970; though the song hit several charts and peaked at third place on Billboard’s Hot country singles charts, it’s not become one of the staples in his discography alongside songs such as I Walk The Line, Man In Black and Folsom Prison Blues. But it should, as it is obvious that Cash put a lot of himself into this daring song – stark protest songs of this type have never been commonplace in country music.
Alexander’s book and his words on this song in particular inspired me to compile my own list of five great, essential Johnny Cash songs that are often overlooked. To be sure, there is more than ten times this number of songs in Cash’s extensive discography that are deserving of mention, but I’ll stick to five I particularly love.
i. What Is Truth
With the intro above, it comes as no surprise that What Is Truth is my first pick. With this song, Johnny Cash truly stakes himself publicly as the kind of person he saw himself as, and what he became to be seen as: part of the often quite conservative country music establishment, but still an open-minded, liberal and unprejudiced individual. Ready to have his say despite consequences – but not confrontational or hostile. In these lyrics, written in the era of the Vietnam war ant the anti-war protests, Cash casts his lot with the youth of the day and implores people of his generation to listen to what the teenagers have to say without foregone conclusions and prejudice, to truly try to understand what the younger generation is asking and saying. There is an elegance in the compassionate lyrics, which strive to create understanding between generations instead of declaring one to be wrong and the other to be right. It is this compassionate, bridge-building spirit which has endeared Cash to generations of music fans who normally don’t care much for country music.
Cash also used this song to cleverly have his say about current events when president Richard M. Nixon invited him to the white house; instead of singing Merle Haggard’s classic Okie From Muskogee – the sarcasm of which may have eluded the shady president – as Nixon requested, Cash chose this song. In his introduction to the song, he clearly sided with the youth. Directing these words at a president who had condoned violent suppressive actions against Vietnam war protesters on the streets and at college campuses was a definitive and bold statement – but one Cash unwaveringly made, in his polite, respectful, even gentle but firm manner.
ii. Sing A Travelin’ Song
Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (the line Cash almost always used to start his concerts with) from 1970 is Cash’s 33rd album, and one of the finest longplayers in his extensive discography. It is in fact represented by two songs in this list, and I was contemplating including a third, but enough’s enough.
The first of the two songs is Sing A Travelin’ Song, which was actually penned by Ken Jones, son of Helen Carter, who in turn was sister to June Carter Cash, Cash’s wife. Jones was tragically killed in an automobile accident at the tender age of 16. Not only a human tragedy, but judged by this song a tragic loss for the music world as well.
Sing A Travelin’ Song sounds like it was written for Johnny Cash; though fidelity, family and loyalty were themes close to Cash’s heart, and values he wholeheartedly endorsed, he also loved to explore the other side in many songs of wanderlust, broken hearts and broken homes. Cash loved to explore both sides of things, even when he knew what his own opinion was.
The wandering lover is of course a staple of both country and folk music. But whilst the theme is an almost stereotypical one, Jones’ lyrics have a powerful maturity to them that hits home. Especially in Cash’s tender performance, which relies on acoustic guitar and soft backing vocals by The Carter Family (I think Helen Carter is featured here!). There’s no bravado or defiance in the lyrics, no youthful boasting; rather, there’s a sense of regret that the main character of the song cannot give his woman what she most desires, and must for the best of the both of them leave her. It’s a heartbreaking song that beautifully explores the irredeemable breach between two lovers who want completely different things from life.
What masterpieces Ken Jones could have written had he lived a longer life!
iii. Jesus Was A Carpenter
It is of course no news to anyone familiar with the Man In Black that one of the pillars of his life was his christian faith and unwavering belief in Jesus Christ. In fact, initially he fancied himself a gospel singer but Sun Records’ chief Sam Phillips refused to sign a gospel singer on account of gospel not selling well – thankfully so, as otherwise Cash might never have become the world famous Man In Black. However, eventually Cash would record more than his fair share of gospel and spiritual albums, and include songs of a spiritual nature on most of his albums.
Through the years, Cash developed a unique approach to spiritual songs. One that didn’t feel preachy except when he expressly wanted to preach; even through and through denominational songs were delivered with a subtlety and grace that made them accessible to believers as well as non-believers. I think just about the only other artist who has managed something similar is Willie Nelson, who has the uncanny ability to sing denominational songs straight from the heart without coming on too strong at all.
Jesus Was A Carpenter, written by Christopher Wren, is one of Cash’s best spiritual songs. There’s a deep reverence for Christ here, but at the same time one can sense that there’s no conservative holier-than-thou clucking of tongues when Cash sings “And He built His house from people just like these”; no, Cash is singing of the same youth whose side he took on What Is Truth.
But not only that, there is the peaceful serenity and calmness of a Sunday morning in the song, an affirmative belief in the truth of Christ that somehow manages to reverberate something even in through and through non-believer hearts such as mine. In a nutshell, what Cash manages to do through his best spiritual songs is to display a portion of his own faith without being out to preach and convert, to give a small peek into the strength he drew from his belief with a confidence in its strength that does not need to make demands on others. There’s beauty in that.
iv. Ballad Of Little Fauss And Big Halsy
From the rather serious and somber songs thus far, on to something more light-hearted. Ballad Of Little Fauss And Big Halsy is from the soundtrack of a movie by the same name starring Robert Redford and Michael J. Pollard. Written by rockabilly legend Carl Perkins (he of Blue Suede Shoes fame), this is a fun, rockin’ fast paced song with great guitarwork by Perkins, and Cash offering an engaging, energetic vocal performance. It’s not the stuff of legends, perhaps, but it’s a very good song and serves as a good reminder that amidst all the serious songs with heavy topics Cash is often remembered for, he would also belt out story songs without much in terms of moral to the story. Sometimes a good story and a good song are enough, and in the case of Ballad Of Little Fauss And Big Halsy, this is certainly true – definitely one of my favourite forgotten gems from Cash’s discography.
v. Goin’ By The Book
Cash was disgracefully dropped from his long-time label Columbia Records in the end of the 80’s after what was a long decline, a drought of hits and, quite frankly, many mediocre records with little passion or inspiration. He was picked up by Mercury Records for a string of albums that are often considered Cash’s “lost years” – which is a shame, because though commercial success was slim, most of the Mercury albums are much better than what he’d released via Columbia for years and years. The two best albums on Mercury are Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town from 1987 and Boom Chicka Boom from 1990, both of which feature strong new numbers and well-done reworkings of older songs. The Mystery Of Life from 1991 does not quite reach the same level, but is for the most part a very solid album with a definite highlight in this song.
With Goin’ By The Book we’re back to the heavy topics – the apocalyptic visions of the song are just about as heavy as Cash could get. In this song written by a man with the catchy name of Chester Lester, Cash delves deep into imagery from the Book of Revelations, juxtaposing them with current events, leading him to wonder how far the end of the world is – because everything is going by the book. If Jesus Was A Carpenter showed the beautiful, serene side of Cash’s christianity, this is hellfire and brimstone. But, as a non-believer looking at the same world Cash looked at, I can only agree with the dark sentiments of this song, just sans the christian connotations. Things are, indeed, going by the book – and down the drain.
In a way, one could say that the hopefulness of songs like What Is Truth and Jesus Was A Carpenter, written and performed decades earlier, have at least for this one song turned to an almost bitter resignation; that the world did not change, the lofty dreams and ideals of the youths of a decade or two ago did not save the world. Of course, Johnny Cash never gave up hope – that was another characteristic trait of his, partially through his faith in Christ but also through his faith in humanity – but through his music, he would channel both hope and hopelessness, light and dark, optimism and pessimism, because both have a place in the world, and we all go through light times and dark times. If the other songs in this list veer towards the more optimistic and hopeful, Goin’ By The Book serves to bring balance. Plus, it’s a heck of a good song… and definitely an overlooked one.
So there you have it. Five picks from the hundreds if not thousands of songs the Man In Black wrote, recorded and performed throughout his career. It is of course a mere scratch at the surface, with dozens and dozens of obscure greats still being left in the shadows. But these are five songs definitely worthy of your time and attention.