A walking contradiction. Me and Johnny Cash.

Artifacts are a function of nonverbal communication that can give us a glimpse into the past, as well as teaching us much about the present. For example, the Johnny Cash family home located in Dyess, Arkansas, gives us insight into how the Cash family lived and worked. A house is more than just a collection of planks and nails divided into rooms and populated by useful and decorative furnishings, rather it is a portal, a time machine of sorts that gives us access to the past. The Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas has a past that is populated by the poor and marginalized, but also a rich heritage of musical influence. Consider that it is in this setting that Johnny Cash thrived as a musician, song writer and artist. Artistry has a way of flourishing in the strangest of circumstances, perhaps it is because in these kinds of settings the fear is taken away. There was very little artistic angst in Dyess, Arkansas, because in this environment of poverty the more urgent fears surrounding daily survival needs took precedent.

Cash lost his brother to a saw mill accident and by Cash’s own admission this radically changed the trajectory of his life. Johnny Cash became troubled by the larger philosophical questions of origins and destinies. In rural Arkansas, there were few institutions that made any attempt to answer these questions and the only one accessible to young Johnny Cash was the church. Johnny accepted Christ by walking from the pew to the pulpit and by doing so became a lifelong devotee of Christ; if not so much his church. Johnny Cash was often called “a walking contradiction” because of his duplicitous lifestyle that was at odds with what the church defined as a holy life. A duplicity that is also reflective of my interactions with the Delta’s brand of Christianity. 

I walked the flat land of Cash’s Delta home. And as I walked around the Dyess Colony/Johnny Cash museum, the artifacts spoke to me. I was reminded of the Scripture from Hebrews 11 that those who have died yet speak. Johnny Cash still lives, not only through his music, but through the legacy he left behind. It was amazing to greet people, literally from all over the world who had a connection to the rural delta of Arkansas through the life and music of Johnny Cash. Johnny was an unlikely entertainer, whose stage presence was often enhanced by his abuse of drugs. But in the ups and downs, twists and turns of his iconic life he never lost touch with his roots of poverty and marginalization. Cash would dedicate his performances to the poor, imprisoned, and broken, wearing black in solidarity with their cause. In many respects, Cash’s story is my own, and as I walked through the museum or on the planks of the Cash boyhood home, the floor creaked with my childhood memories. Memories of endless hot summer days, with but only one trip into town per week. On Sunday, we would go to church and back. This was both a religious and cultural obligation that was spiritually enlightening, and on a good Sunday, entertaining. Johnny Cash had a way of integrating both enlightenment and entertainment into his life and music, leaving a cultural heritage that still speaks profoundly today. 

The life of Johnny Cash, like all lives tells a story. In every good story, there is a hero who faces adversity caused by a villain. The villain is defeated and the adversity is overcome, only with the help of a guide, who gives direction to the hero. When the hero employees the guide’s wisdom, the hero experiences a sense of transformation. This is exactly what happened in the life of Johnny Cash. For Johnny, there were many enemies. But the perennial enemy was poverty. Not because he lived his life in poverty, but because he rose above it and never stopped fighting for those who remained fettered in poverty. But who was the guide? For Johnny, this was also complicated, as there were many people who spoke wisdom into his life. Certainly, the Cash family, father, especially mother served as a guide. But perhaps the greatest guide in Johnny’s life was his brother Jack who died in the saw mill accident. This experience led Johnny to live his life differently. It was after the death of his brother Jack that Johnny chose to commit his life to Christianity, and this religion, with the angelic example of his deceased brother became a source of wisdom and direction, especially in the darkest episodes of his life. 

The life of Cash is a reminder that all of us have a story. Granted, our story may not be as well-known as that of Johnny Cash, but our lives speak nevertheless. For all of us, there is a grand narrative, and although most would find it difficult to explain in these terms, this is our heritage. For Cash, the story has tangible artifacts such as a boyhood home, memorable songs, and gold records. For us, the artifacts may not be as many, but they exist. They exist in the stories we tell each other, the pictures we post on social media, and the legacy we leave behind for our children and grandchildren. It is clear that Cash was not satisfied with all of his legacy. He was known as a “walking contradiction” for exactly this reason. It was difficult for Johnny Cash to reconcile the demons and angels of his existence. This is also a function of heritage, the idea that it can be both positive and negative with different interpretations for subsequent generations. The music, life and legacy of Johnny Cash remains a topic of interpretation as emerging generations discover and appropriate his artistry as their own. 

Among the last recordings of fellow Northeastern Arkansas native, Johnny Cash, is an original song he penned after being awoke from a dream. The Man Comes Around, inspired by the dream and perfected from Cash’s own cultural understanding of the Bible’s book of Revelation, warns of an impending Day of Apocalyptic Judgement, commencing with the second coming of Jesus Christ. In Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity, Leigh H. Edwards writes of Cash’s dream in which he met Queen Elizabeth II, “I walked into Buckingham Palace, and there she sat, knitting or sewing…As I approached, the Queen looked up at me and said, ‘Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.’ Then of course, I awoke. I realized that ‘Thorn tree in a whirlwind’ sounded familiar to me. Eventually I decided it was biblical, and I found it in the book of Job. From there it grew into a song, and I started lifting things from the book of Revelation.” Edwards offers this observation, “Cash responds to religious codes when he decides this dream is of some portent, and so it haunts him. Yet he claims the authority to inscribe his own personalized version of the Bible and of Christian stories to circulate those imaginings in his music. Although his dream of Queen Elizabeth seems odd and idiosyncratic, it does have links to religion (the divine right of kings and queens?) Cash reflects on how his own Southern rural upbringing and religious training would have influenced his version of the common Queen dream. He pondered the ‘whirlwind’ line for seven years before he realized it was from the Bible. In his Unearthed liner notes, he surmises: ‘My grandfather was a minister and I was brought up reading the scriptures, so I guess I did have it in there somewhere!’ He incorporates that line into his chorus (‘And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree’) to signify another element of confession and mass upheaval occurring on Judgement Day. Cash would later call this song his ‘spiritual odyssey of the apocalypse.’ Most significant about this song is how it both reflects his writerly combination of influences (sacred and secular, faith and intellectual debate) and illuminates Cash as a product of his culture.” 

According to Edwards, the dual religious influences showed up early in Cash’s Christian training. The Baptist Preacher “terrified” him, and the Pentecostals gave him a love for music and instruments. Cash wrote, “It was the songs I was beginning to feel” and the songs enabled him to “communicate with God.” Through these songs Cash communicated a picture of Delta life to the rest of the world. The life and music of Johnny Cash is a reflection of the duplicitous religious culture of the imagined Delta region of the American South. 

As Edwards articulates, “As members of a rural Southern working class carried on Protestant religious practices, their religion offered solace in the face of economic hardship or social marginalization as well as a ritualized, shared cultural convention that spoke to nostalgia for home and tradition.” These themes are communicated in the persona and music of Johnny Cash. Or as Edwards points out quoting writer Nicholas Dawidoff, “Cash’s voice is a metonymy for a certain version of the South: ‘Lodged somewhere between talk and music, his singing is flat and artless and grim, the way the white poverty-stricken South was flat, artless, and grim.’”

The religion served as both symbol of solace and subterfuge in the Delta. For many, including Cash, it is difficult to imagine childhood without the ever-present religious culture, while it simultaneously served as a disguise for sinful underpinnings that supported Delta mores. Cash understood the multiple responsibilities of religion in the imagined South; namely, to provide a venue for genuine expressions of faith for the acolyte, while at the same time plausible alibis for the hypocrite. Two natures that often inhabited the same individual. A truth of duplicity that Cash certainly understood about himself. Consider the marketing of his 1994 release American Recordings that featured Cash in a black long coat, flanked by a pair of dogs.

American Recordings 1994

Cash comments, “You know my album cover with the two dogs on it? I’ve given them names. Their names are Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redemption is the white one with the black stripe. That’s kind of the theme of that album, and I think it says it for me, too. When I was really bad, I was not all that bad. When I was trying to be good, I could never be all that good. There would be that black streak going through.”

Edwards goes on to observe that “In Cash’s visualization, the sin and the redemption must always contain a part of each other, both within himself and in his music.”

Cash embodies an apologetic that is central throughout the literature of the imagined South, a type of Southern Civil Religion that seeks to provide cover for even the most heinous of crimes, while choosing to believe the best about the intentions of the Southern human heart. This duplicity reminded me of something William Alexander Percy wrote, “We didn’t regard drunkenness and lechery, Sabbath-breaking and gambling as more than poor judgement or poor taste. What we were slow to forgive was hardness of heart and all unkindness. Perhaps we were overstocked with sinners and pariahs and publicans, but they kept the churches in their places and preserved the tradition of sprightliness.” Percy’s word choice is interesting here. The term “sprightliness” has origins in the word “buoyant”. The ability to stay afloat, both literally and metaphorically, was a very real concern for Percy, Cash, and all the inhabitants of the Delta, as the Mississippi River was always threatening to overflow the banks and poverty was perpetually evidenced by not having any money in a bank, or anywhere else for that matter. Us Delta natives find ourselves “treading water” on most days.

I feel an affinity for Johnny Cash. Not just because we share the Delta home. But because I often feel this sense of contradiction. And to make matters worse, I can’t sing. I’m still looking for a way to express the volatility within. Writing words here is a good start I suppose?