Monday, November 9, 2009

"Call him drunken Ira Hayes/He won't answer anymore/Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian/Nor the Marine that went to war..."

It’s going to be a particularly content-free day here at Castle Yesteryear—my father, or “Conan the Contrarian,” as we call him, is coming over for assistance on a project—but I did want to take a few moments to point you to an interesting article at I read Salon on a fairly regular basis (as all good pinkos should, I suppose) and they really do some first-rate stories—this one’s an excerpt from the recently published book by Antonino D'Ambrosio (A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears) and it talks about the history of one of the Man in Black’s most controversial albums and the single from that LP, which he performed for President Richard Milhous Nixon in July 1972 (Nixon had requested that Johnny do Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee and Guy Drake’s Welfare Cadillac).

With the nation still mired in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind. Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer's rendition of the explicitly antiwar What Is Truth? and Man in Black ("Each week we lose a hundred fine young men") and to a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called The Ballad of Ira Hayes. It was a daring confrontation with a president who was popular with Cash's fans and about to sweep to a crushing reelection victory, but a glimpse of how Cash saw himself -- a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden. An American protest singer, in short, as much as a country music legend.

Years later, Man in Black is remembered as a sartorial statement, and What Is Truth? as a period piece, if at all. Of the three songs that Cash played for Nixon, the most enduring, and the truest to his vision, was The Ballad of Ira Hayes.

I sort of take exception to that last bit only because I still think What is Truth? resonates some thirty-five years after its release, and to dismiss Man in Black as a “sartorial statement” is an indication that people really haven’t listened to the lyrics of that song. Other than that tiny nitpick, I feel it’s a really great read—and I’m going to have to track down this book at my nearest local library.

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Bill Crider said...

All I can say is that the book must've been written by a whippersnapper who wasn't around when Cash originally released those songs. Some of us haven't forgotten them.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I just pray he doesn't go near your lawn, Bill.

Doghouse Riley said...

I've told the internets this story before, but I got to talk with Mr. Cash back in the 70s. He told me a story about trying to catch a calf with diarrhea. I just sorta goggled at him.

June Carter and the Tennessee Three, too. Genuinely nice, nice people.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Words cannot adequately describe my envy, my friend. I think "goggled" would have been my reaction as well.

Pam said...

Uh-oh. A project.