Wednesday, September 01, 2004


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sept. 1, 2004

NEW YORK _ There are states in red and states in blue. And now there's a battle over which can lay claim to the memory of the Man in Black.

Hundreds of demonstrators, a big percentage of whom wore the color favored by the late country singer Johnny Cash, gathered in front of Sotheby's auction house in uptown Manhattan Tuesday.

They were there to protest a reception for the U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and the Tennessee delegation to the Republican National Convention, sponsored by the American Gas Association.

The event was billed as a tribute to Johnny Cash.

And this riled Cash fans on the left, who argued that Cash was known for singing songs for America's underdogs.

"I'm a Johnny Cash fan and I think he's a symbol for the working people and the downtrodden," said Heidi Diehl, 23, of Brooklyn. "I don't think the Republicans are helping people who are down and out. For them to have a tribute to Johnny Cash is ironic."

"Johnny Cash was neither a Republican nor a Democrat," said Rine Siegal, Brooklyn photographer who organized the demonstration.

Siegal said she became a Johnny Cash devotee only three or four years ago. "I first became a fan listening to him in my grandpa's station wagon. When he sings, it's from the bottom of his heart.

"It's offensive that they would try to exploit his memory," she said. "He was a great uniter, not someone that one party can exploit. "

I Walk the Sign.

While the demonstration was nonviolent, protesters booed delegates and other guests who entered Southeby's. Some followed and shouted at delegates, who had to walk a path behind police barriers to enter the building. "You're the same people who put Johnny Cash in jail," one youth screamed at a party guest.

(Cash spent a night in the El Paso jail on a drug charge in the 1960s.)

Instead of singing classic protest chestnuts like "Give Peace a Chance," several demonstrators who brought guitars serenaded the rally with Cash tunes like "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues."

Ever so often they sang a refrain in the Cash style, "Those Republicans they got me rollin' in my grave."

Many of the signs at the rally were based on lyrics from Cash songs.

I Walk the Line for Kerry

Send Bush to Folsom

Take Back America One Piece at a Time.

And one, referencing a relatively obscure Cash tune, apparently was aimed at Republicans. "Egg Sucking Dogs," it said.

One sign referred to a country music act hired to play at the convention: "You Can Keep Your Brooks & Dunn, But Johnny Cash Belongs to Everyone."

Another sign had no words -- just the infamous photo of a young Cash giving an obscene finger gesture to a photographer.

What Would Johnny Do?

While protesters insisted that Cash never would have condoned the Republicans paying tribute to him, one Nashville Democrat said Tuesday that this might not be the case.

A spokesman for a Nashville organization called Music Row Democrats said his group isn't concerned about the Southeby's reception.

"From our conversation with Johnny's son, John Carter Cash, the event is for Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was very close to Johnny," said Ed Pettersen, a singer/songwriter and music producer, in a phone interview Tuesday.

"If this is in conjunction with a reception for Lamar Alexander, I have no problem with it," Pettersen said. "But if it goes beyond that and the Republicans start proselytizing using Johnny Cash, I have a big problem with it."

Republicans Love Johnny Too

Attempts to get comments from the guests at the GOP Cash tribute was difficult. I was told at the door that only invited guests could enter.

Because of the large crowd of jeering demonstrators, delegates virtually ran in and out of Sotheby's.

One who stopped and talked was William Hilleary, a delegate from Tennessee.

"These are a bunch of nuts," he said of the protesters. "They never accomplish anything. "

Asked if he was a Cash fan, Hilleary said, "I sure am. I'm from Tennessee."

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