A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New MexicanMay 19, 2006
Johnny Cash’s decades-spanning career produced a humongous catalog, which even before his death had been heading toward the same mindless route of recycling, repackaging, and regurgitation previously suffered by The Beach Boys and Elvis.
So when I first opened the envelope containing a new double-disc compilation of Cash material called Personal File, I was less than excited.
Until I looked at the song list and realized I hadn’t heard most of these 49 tunes, at least not by Johnny Cash. It turns out that this is a collection of home recordings, just Cash and his guitar, mostly from the mid-’70s, though there are a few stray tunes from the early ’80s. It was a period just past Cash’s height of popularity, a time when he was sliding toward the bitter sidelines of Nashville’s music-industrial complex.
Apparently these are from tapes uncovered, after the singer’s death, in a storeroom in Cash’s home studio. The ones included in this collection — and apparently more collections will follow, as there were “hundreds of boxes” of tapes, according to the press release — are from a group of white boxes marked “Personal File.”
No, it wasn’t a great era for the Man in Black. But this is a powerful collection of music for those of us who loved him. It’s almost as if Johnny Cash is singing songs from beyond the grave for a troubled world that still needs him.
There are a bunch of sentimental songs about home and Mama. There’s a smattering of Irish songs (“I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen,” “Galway Bay”), a set of Alaska (!) songs, capped off by a five-minute recitation of a Robert Service poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”; there are covers of country classics like the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” the Kershaw Brothers’ “Louisiana Man,” and John Prine’s “Paradise.” The recordings also include a tune by Cash’s stepdaughter (and former Santa Fe resident) Carlene Carter, “It Takes One to Know Me,” and “Missouri Waltz,” the state song of Missouri. (Sorry, but I can’t listen to this track without recalling a weird ditty my mama taught me that used the same melody. It starts off, “Mary Margaret Truman is the daughter of the pres/lives up in the White House with her father, Harry S.”)
And there’s an entire disc of gospel songs, including a couple of traditional tunes (“Farther Along,” “Have Thine Own Way Lord”) but also a whole slew of original Cash tunes that never were released before. These are the most important discoveries of Personal File.
He gets downright apocalyptic on a couple of songs. “Look Unto the East,” another Cash original, has such an abundance of alluring alliteration it could cause Kris Kristofferson to croak. “The teacher of truth told tales of troubled times that would begin/And the cynical sower sowed the sorrowful seeds of seven sins.”
The next track is “Matthew 24 (Is Knocking at the Door),” which Cash wrote with his son John Carter Cash in the early ’80s. The title refers to a chapter in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus warns of false Messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes — the beginning of the end.
“I heard on the radio rumors of war/People gettin’ ready for battle/And there may be just one more,” Cash sings here. The image of “the great bear from the northland” seems almost quaint now. (For you post-Cold War kids, the “great bear” was Russia, which people my age were supposed to fear and despise.)
Maybe the apocalypse Cash envisioned here didn’t happen right away. But no doubt about it, these are troubling times, and more troubles are certainly ahead.
But if you believe in Cash’s vision of Christianity, the answer is not to head for the hills — it’s to help and love each other. The songs here I like best are those that express Cash’s brand of Christian love and tolerance. In “If Jesus Ever Loved a Woman,” a song about Mary Magdalene (Holy Da Vinci Code, Batman!), Cash says of Jesus, “He never did condemn a man or woman just for being man or woman/and he always will forgive if someone tells him that they’re really truly sorry/but couldn’t stand the hypocrite, a person who’d pretend that they were holy and were not/I think he’d love someone like Mary Magdalene quite a lot.” This song is uncredited, at least on the advance copy I have. But I suspect, if it’s not an original, it might have been written by June Carter Cash. The phrasing, meter, and rhyme scheme remind me of some of her songs such as “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe.”
“Sanctified” seems to be a dialogue between a joyful, religious man and his inner demon. Cash plays both roles, speaking in his gruffest baritone for the voice of doubt and temptation and singing his better self’s response. “I don’t believe in God,” the lower voice mocks. “Well God bless you/you ain’t got no argument for what I feel inside,” the singer responds.
“No Earthly Good,” which has a melody eerily similar to “The Times They Are a Changin’,” razzes the holier-than-thou who are “so Heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good,” charging them to help the “hungry hands reaching up here from the ground.”
Similarly, on “What on Earth (Will You Do for Heaven’s Sake)” he asks, “Did you feed the poor in spirit and befriend the persecuted?” The song, he explains in the spoken introduction, was inspired by looking at the stars through a telescope from his home in Jamaica. “God cares for each and every one of us,” he says. “I guess he’s as small as we want him to be or as big as we want him to be. Although we’re earthbound, we can still be more like him if we try.”
Some say this country is headed toward theocracy. I sure hope that’s not true, and I’m pretty sure Cash wouldn’t want it that way. Maybe the antidote is the Gospel According to Johnny.
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