Friday Fun, Songs from Before My Birth, #6

"Ring of Fire," by Johnny Cash (1963)




Here's my experience with the music of Johnny Cash, and several people have told me pretty much the same story about their own encounter with Cash's music.  I'm going along, minding my own business, not thinking much one way or the other about Cash or his music.  He's a country guy, I guess?  And then, one day, for reasons I can't really remember I start listening to his stuff.  And that experience is a complete revelation, and I realize that he is one of the all time greats.  In particular, I come to realize there is a level of. . . "emotion"?  "depth?"  There is a level of something running underneath his music that transcends any sort of genre conventions or time a place.  You don't have to like blues or rockabilly to appreciate Cash.  It is almost like the only requirement is you have to be a person--it's like he is saying something universal, but you are just getting it for the first time.

My theory on this is that you have to be a particular place and time in your life in order to "get" Cash.  That time and place is not the same for everyone, and it is very likely context dependent.  You find yourself in a particular place and a particular situation, and all the sudden Cash is speaking to you and to your experience.  When I find someone who says they don't like Cash, my internal reaction is to think "well, you will."  That elusive thing may not have happened for that person yet, but it will, and when it does Cash will be there waiting.

The other thing that Cash does better than anyone else is to write religiously themed songs that have no ounce of sappiness or cheap sentimentality.  If you think being a person of faith is going to spare you the dark nights of the soul, Cash is here to disabuse you of that notion.  It's not that his vision of God is harsh, but his vision of life is pretty rough, and God is not going to spare you from the bumps in the road.  There is a theme of hope in Cash's songs, especially "Ring of Fire," but it is a realistic hope.  It may work out OK in the end, but getting to that end is going to take some doing.

But that, I think, is why Cash's music is so powerful.  Sometimes what we need is not to be cheered up with happy talk, but simply accompanied by someone who has gone through the same stuff.  Cash is the guy standing next to you with his arm on your shoulder saying "I hear you, brother."  In certain moments, that arm on the shoulder is exactly what you need.

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