The Case for Johnny Cash as a Performer Deeply Engaged With the Issues of His Time

From a Washington Post book review by Jack Hamilton headlined “The case for Johnny Cash as a political artist”:

The greatest singers are magicians of intimacy, bonding themselves to listeners in ways that make us feel like we’ve been granted visitation into their psyches and souls. Johnny Cash, who died in 2003, was one of those singers, a man whose sumptuous baritone conveyed a singular mixture of warmth, gravitas and grace. That voice is the reason Cash ranks among the most storied and mythologized musical figures in modern American life, the subject of boxed sets, books, and movies….This density of lore around the Man in Black can make finding the “real” Cash a daunting proposition.

The latest entry in the literature of Cash is Michael Stewart Foley’s “Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash,” which argues for considering Cash as a political artist, a performer deeply engaged with the issues of his time who deployed his magnificent instrument in quietly radical ways. It’s an ambitious attempt at a sort of musical-cum-political characterology, drawn from Cash’s public (and sometimes private) utterances and close readings of songs, recordings and performances….

Foley’s book has two interrelated objectives. The first is to make a case for Cash as a product of his times, a man whose music was far more determined by and responsive to what was going on around him than has been recognized. The second is to argue that Cash’s position as a political artist has been misunderstood and underappreciated. Cash, contends Foley, practiced a “politics of empathy. He came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to the issues.”…

On the first objective, “Citizen Cash” succeeds winningly. Foley is a well-regarded historian and does an excellent job of placing Cash’s life and career within the contexts of his time. A chapter on Cash’s Arkansas childhood links his burgeoning political consciousness to policies of the New Deal, which instilled in him a belief that society must protect its most vulnerable people….

On the second objective, though, the book can be slippery. Its strongest cases for Cash’s political activity come in chapters about his commitment to prison reform and his outspokenness on Native American issues….While Foley does give them a fuller sense of dimension and rootedness, there’s not much that’s particularly revelatory.

Other chapters find Foley’s “politics of empathy” straining to square Cash’s contradictions. For instance, his positions on the Vietnam War often seemed muddled, as he castigated protesters one moment while pleading for tolerance the next, and called for peace while endorsing the Nixon administration’s prosecution of the war. Foley describes Cash urging support for the president — and, by extension, the American military — in an episode of “The Johnny Cash Show” in early 1970, just weeks after the My Lai Massacre was made public. Foley argues that Cash’s position should be understood in terms of his own military service and steadfast empathy for the troops. Cash “plainly experienced the war through the prism of his own experience,” writes Foley. But this is how most people experience most things; empathy is recognizing the experiences of others — Vietnamese people, for instance — without needing to filter them through yourself.

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