Fifty-Fifty: Johnny Cash by Sarah Jane Mulvey
Fifty-Fifty: Johnny Cash
As a person whose chosen form of expression starts and ends with words, I’m deeply envious of people who make music. I find it amazing that someone has the talent to not only create new sound, but also mold their thoughts to fit into that sound. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, I was blindsided by the writers who were upset by the choice, incredulously asking “are song lyrics really the same as poetry?”
I don’t need to look any further for an example than Maya Angelou reciting her poem “Phenomenal Woman”. The rhythm and sway of her voice, I can practically see her dancing as she speaks. Did you know she first entered the national spotlight as a calypso singer/dancer in the 50’s?
There is no way to separate music from poetry, or poetry from music. They’re two sides of the same coin. To ask if song lyrics stand up to poetry, or if poetry can be as powerful as music, is to miss half of the beauty of either art form.
I’ve titled my little series Fifty-Fifty, exploring the duality of artists’ words and music.
The choice for my inaugural post was based on the first records I played in both 2017 and 2018, Mr. Johnny Cash. For probably obvious reasons, Cash’s music always resonates with me most when I’m feeling the first effects of seasonal depression. I usually crash immediately after New Years, the holiday high wearing off as I stare down the miserable grey space between January and March.
For Christmas last year I was gifted Forever Words, a collection of Cash’s private writings that never saw the light of a recording studio. Some of the poems still sing, though. Right off the page. It’s impossible not to hear his melancholy, rumbling voice in pieces like “Dark and Bloody Ground”.
I’ve been thinking about a woman
In a wild Kentucky town
Where the mountains are high near Harlan
And the whirlpools twirl on down
There my secret can be found
In the dark and bloody ground.
It’s not hard to hear the chug-chug-chugging of his signature strum pattern, and the poem continues on into what could have easily become another of his bad-guy ballads.
What surprised me most about Cash’s private poetry was its warmth. There aren’t many lovey-dovey Johnny Cash songs. The only really nice ones are probably “I Love You Because” and “You’re The Nearest Thing To Heaven”, they’re sweet and simple. John’s poetry reveals that he had a lot more where those came from. My favorite in Forever Words was “I’m Comin, Honey”.
I was drivin’ in the snow
On a mountain called Soco
Your picture hanging on my rearview glass
I was heavy on the foot
I was blowing out the soot
There was no one alive who’d try to pass
I’m comin, honey
Put a little coffee in the pot
I’m comin’ honey
Get set to give me all the love you got
That line about a picture hanging from the rear-view mirror gets to me. I’ve been stuck in traffic before, or on a very long drive and caught a glimpse of the picture I’d keep of my partner on my car visor, and get those warm fuzzies knowing they were waiting at home for me. It’s such a simple, universal comfort.
The collection has been curated by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash and poet Paul Muldoon. The two painstakingly went through Cash’s effects after his death in 2003. The book includes copies of the original drafts, adjacent to their printed poem. They showcase an artist at work in the most ordinary way. A few shorter pieces are scrawled sideways on notebook paper, another fills a Delta airlines in-flight stationary sheet, front to back. It’s a unique look into the smaller, poetic moments of Cash’s life, far removed from his Man In Black persona.
What "Forever Words" accomplishes, more than anything, is to soften the edges of Johnny Cash. It’s a valuable addition to his legacy of simple, powerful prose. I would have loved to hear Cash read these poems aloud, in his gravelly baritone. Especially “Forever”, closing with:
The trees that I planted
Still are young
The songs I sang
Will still be sung