Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Johnny Cash Taught Me To Think For Myself

Lately I have been listening to a lot of Johnny Cash. He has been dead for nine years so it may be a bit surprising that I am listening to his music. The reasons are pretty simple. A whole raft of compilations recently appeared in the market and my old/new car has a six CD changer. Oh, and when I was in high school, Johnny Cash changed my life.

Cash was a new voice in the 1950’s. He was not Elvis Presley and he was not Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. Where I grew up in southern California his voice and style appealed to the Dust Bowl émigrés that later turned Bakersfield into Nashville West.

On the other hand Cash had little or no appeal to the teenagers of the day who were my peers. They were stuck on Elvis or sampling “race music” as it filtered into the mainstream. “Work with Me Annie” had become a hit for Etta James and Georgia Gibbs when it morphed into “Dance with Me Henry.” Groups like The Crows and later The Platters were recording music that you could dance to even if you could not dance.

You didn’t dance to Johnny Cash and I knew only a few others who knew who he was. The new compilations remind that Cash’s range was limited and included lots of gospel music hardly a turn-on for the teen crowd. Some of the semi-pop recordings were drivel even then; “Teen Age Queen” comes to mind. Then there was “I Walk The Line” a hymn to fidelity, which implied that one day you might have some one to walk the line for. And there was the driving beat of Luther Monroe Perkins and the Tennessee Three who backed Cash. By then LM and Cash were sampling drugs of various sorts and for Luther the end was tragic.  Others who came to know Cash reported on the price he paid for his dalliance. But you do not forget their music and a single chord announces their presence even today.

Sometimes Cash sang of loss. “I Still Miss Someone” touched the heartstrings in ways we may forget when we are 50. “Give My Love to Rose” spoke for a dying father who wanted his boy to know “his Daddy was so proud of him.” “Folsom Prison Blues” spoke of the anger that sometimes welled up. Then reminded that some might  “shoot a man just to watch him die”. There was mindless violence in music long before Gangsta Rap came along.  I guess not just white boys ignored their mother’s warnings not to take their guns to town.

In high school we played a potpourri of music each week on Friday at lunch. You had the chance to suggest music to be played and we heard the emerging top 40 hits week after week. I suggested that we might listen to Cash. “Who?” was the reply from the young women who ran the record player. They were so cool, so lovely, and so distant from the world I knew. I nearly said, “Never-mind” but I didn’t and one Friday with a disclaimer blaming me, Johnny Cash broke the sound barrier. Few noticed, fewer commented and I realized that it was ok to break the predictable pattern.  It is a learning that has served me well.
I continued to listen to Cash who along with friends like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson gave bad behavior a country gloss. Luther Perkins fell asleep with a cigarette in his mouth and set himself on fire and died in August, 1968. The Tennessee Three became the Tennessee Two and the bad behavior continued through most of Cash’s career. The music they made came with a high cost.  But at a safe distance, I learned that taste and tastes in music lie on a spectrum and it is hard to move from one end to the other, but you can do it if you try.

The same is true here at MIT. There are the pressures to please and the desire to be part of the in-group whoever that may be at any given time.  There is also the opportunity to step off the edge and do the unexpected. We value those who go against the tide and sometimes we are honored for breaking new ground. But sometimes we just listen to Johnny Cash and are fed by music that reminds us of where we come from and where we might be going.

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute