Essay

Forever Words

A new book collects the unpublished poems of Johnny Cash.

The great artist has a finger on the pulse of his time; he also quickens that pulse. In the case of Johnny Cash, his music seems to well up directly from the poverty and deprivation of country life in the Great Depression, through the uncertainty of World War II, the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam, to the victories of adulation and the vicissitudes of addiction.  We might guess, even if we didn’t know, that Cash’s classic “Five Feet High and Rising” is an account of the flooding with which he was all too familiar from his 1930s achildhood in the cotton fields of Arkansas:

How high’s the water, mama?
Five feet high and risin’

How high’s the water, papa?
Five feet high and risin’

His song “Man in Black” is a deft and dexterous comment on Vietnam, a subject on which so many others were heavy-handed:

And I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believin’ that the Lord was on their side

I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believin’ that we all were on their side

The relationship between the amphitheater and amphetamines, meanwhile, is rather neatly delineated in a piece collected here called “Going, Going, Gone”:

Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder
Fumes and smoke and vapor
The payoff is the same in the end
Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder
Fumes and smoke and vapor
Convenient ways to get the poison in

So ingrained in our collective unconscious is the voice of Johnny Cash that we can all but hear the boom-chicka boom-chicka of his guitar accompaniment, at once reassuring and disquieting in its very familiarity.

The  defining characteristic of an effective lyric—even the greatest of them—is that it doesn’t quite hold up to the scrutiny we might bring to bear on a poem, that only something along the lines of that missing boom-chicka will allow it to be completely what it most may be. In the case of work that is previously unpublished, or hitherto overlooked, this intrinsic lack is thrown into even greater relief. Is it possible that Cash himself chose not to round out, never mind record, some or all of these pieces? Are we doing him and his memory a disservice in allowing them out of the attic and into the wider world? Writers of the stature of Elizabeth Bishop, T. S. Eliot, and Philip Larkin are among those whose reputations have suffered at least a dent from the indiscriminate publication of their second- or third-rate efforts. And the fact is that even great artists not only nod, like Homer, but also produce nonstarters and no-nos.

Such considerations weighed heavily on the team—John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz—most immediately involved in the collection and collation of the copious raw material from which I was able to make the selection for Forever Words. It was with an initial sense of relief, then an increasingly rapturous glee, that I realized there is so much here that will indeed broaden and deepen our perception of Johnny Cash and his legacy.

 

Before thinking about Johnny Cash’s legacy, though, I’d like to appeal to a passage from T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which I continue to find particularly instructive in this matter:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.  I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.

The veracity of Eliot’s last profound observation may be seen in a piece like “The Dogs Are in the Woods”:

The dogs are in the woods
And the huntin’s lookin’ good
And the raccoons on the hill
I can hear them trailing still

These dogs are calling out to some of their not-too-distant relatives, the hunting hounds poisoned by Lord Randall’s dissed girlfriend, as reported by Lord Randall to his mother in the traditional Scotch-Irish folksong “Lord Randall”:

     “What became of your bloodhounds, Lord Randall my son?
What became of your bloodhounds, my handsome young man?”
     “O they swelled and they died: mother, make my bed soon,
            for I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

We’ve already seen the dialogue format of the “Lord Randall” ballad repurposed in “Five Feet High and Rising.” The “Muscadine Wine” we find in this collection is an offshoot of the same vine that gave us the blood-red wine in the Scottish standard “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”:

The King sits in Dunfermline town,
       Drinking the blood-red wine;
“O where shall I get a skeely skipper
        To sail this ship or mine?”

Then up and spake an eldern knight,
        Sat at the King’s right knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
       That ever sailed the sea.”
The King has written a broad letter,
       And sealed it with his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
       Was walking on the strand.

It’s no accident that the tradition of the Scots ballad, along with its transmogrified versions in North  America, is one in which Johnny Cash should be so at ease, given that the first recorded instance of the name Cash—that of Roger Cass—is found in, of all things, the Registrum de Dunfermelyn. The entry is dated 1130, during the reign of King David I of Scotland (r. 1124–1153). “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” is set in Dunfermline a mere hundred sixty years later, in 1290.

We may also see the influence of the Scotch-Irish tradition in the use of the tag phrase at the end of each verse (a device we’ve come to associate with the work of Bob Dylan), in a piece like “Slumgullion”:

Every day’s a brand-new mountain
Don’t drink long at any fountain
You’ll be turned into slumgullion

“Slumgullion” is a word that means several things, including a watery stew, the watery waste left after the rendering of whale blubber, and the slurry associated with a mine. It is generally believed to be derived from “slum,” an old word for “slime,” and “gullion,” an English dialect term for “mud” or “cesspool.” “Gullion” may actually be a corruption of the Gaelic word góilín,  “pit” or “pool.” The earliest recorded usage of “slumgullion,” in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872), refers to a drink:

Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.

The Scotch-Irish song tradition has a strong humorous component that may be detected in “Jellico Coal Man,” a song about life in a Tennessee mining town that could easily have been called Slumgullion had it not already been named after the wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) that grows there in abundance:

It will warm your baby in the winter time
It comes direct from the Jellico mine
When the sun comes up that’s the time I start
You will see me comin’ with my two-wheel cart

There’s a not too-far-from-the-surface eroticism about this coal-mining man that straddles not only the ballad tradition but also the bawdiness of certain old blues songs. We recognize it in “Hey, Baby, Wake Up,” with its assertion that “I need my biscuit buttered, Babe.” We have detected it in “Who’s Gonna Grease My Skillet?” when he says “Who’s gonna squeeze my juice if you should go,” with a nod and wink in the direction of Robert Johnson’s “Squeeze my lemon.”

In addition to conjuring up the naughty nickname attached to, say, Jelly Roll Morton, “Jellico Coal Man” brings to mind the city of Jericho, the walls of which succumbed to the power of music when the Israelite priests sounded their ram’s-horn trumpets. (In one of those fascinating coincidences that many of us enjoy, Jellico was the childhood home of Homer Rodeheaver, the famous evangelist and trombonist.) The iconography of the Bible is a constant in Johnny Cash’s work, rarely so powerful as in a piece like “Job,” with its recalibration of Job as cattle baron:

Job was a wealthy man
He had a lot of kids and a lot of land
He had cattle on a thousand hills
He lived every day to do God’s will

On a technical note, there exist a number of versions of the “Job” text in Cash’s  hand.  As with several other pieces included here, I drew on these multiple manuscript sources to make a plausible “finished” version. An attentive reader may therefore remark on discrepancies and disconnects, variations and vagaries, between the printed texts and the facsimile material with which they’re so artfully interspersed. That reader may also notice the rationalization of stanza breaks and the generally normative tendencies of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.  Cash’s occasional misspellings need be perpetuated no more than Yeats’s, and that includes the humorous humdinger “Caddilac.”

There’s another humorous strand running through a number of these lyrics that draws on the cowboy tradition, be it the Lone Ranger mounted on Silver, referred to in “Spirit Rider” (“I will mount my Hi-Yo and I will ride off, ma’am”), or the singing cowboy Roy Rogers in “Hey, Baby, Wake Up”:

Hey, Baby, wake up
Did you hear the latest news
The man said Roy and Dale split up
And Dale got Trigger, too
Yeah, I hear your sweet feet on the f loor
I knew that’d get through to you

That humor extends to the litany of exhortations in “Don’t Make a Movie About Me” that reflect Cash’s own ambivalence about celebrity and the associated tabloid slobbering:

Don't let 'em drag old Hickory Lake
For my telephones and bottles and roller skates . . .
Out a hundred yards from my lakeside house
Weighted down with a rock is a skirt and blouse
A dozen pair of boots that made a dozen corns
Trombones, trumpets, harmonicas and horns
And the tapes that I threw from the lakeside door
Silverstein, and Kristofferson from years before

This was the selfsame Shel Silverstein who won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song of 1969 for “A Boy Named Sue.” He was friendly with David Allan Coe, also mentioned in “Don’t Make a Movie About Me,” who had the distinction of embarking on his music career in Nashville while living in a hearse parked outside Ryman Auditorium, a macabre touch that would surely have ap- pealed to Cash. The song continues:

If they’re hot on a book called Man in Black Tell
’em I’ve got the rights and won’t give back If
you don’t know my tune you can’t get it right I
don’t talk about me in Man in White

As it turns out, Man in White is the title of Cash’s historical novel about the life of Saint Paul before and after his conversion. We’re reminded, of course, that Johnny Cash as the “Man in Black” is less gunslinger than psalm-singing preacher, the unapologetic nature of his Christian faith shining through in “He Bore It All for Me,” a piece that takes as its text Matthew 11:28, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” A faith in the sense that there is a world beyond this one must at least partly inform the sentiments of “Forever”:

But the trees that I planted
Still are young
The songs I sang
Will still be sung

In addition to the sense that it functions within time, the great work of art brings with it a profound sense of timelessness. There’s a sense of immortality and inevitability that suggests (1) that it has always existed and (2) that it was always meant to exist in this form and this form only. Johnny Cash’s quiet insistence that his songs “will still be sung” might easily be read as self-regarding but is more accurately perceived as a manifestation of the humility that is an absolute prerequisite in art-making: it has less to do with his name and fame being bruited about in Dubai or Decatur or Dunfermline itself than with his achieving a kind of beautiful anonymity. It’s a claim to deathlessness that may be made only by someone who has taken into account that, like “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” Johnny Cash’s brilliant “California Poem” was written by everyone and no one:

The lights are on past midnite
The curtains closed all day
There’s trouble on the mountain
The valley people say


From FOREVER WORDS: The Unknown Poems by Johnny Cash, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Foreword copyright © 2016 by John Carter Cash.

Originally Published: October 12th, 2016

Paul Muldoon is one of Ireland's leading contemporary poets. He was born in Portadown, County Armagh and raised near The Moy, in Northern Ireland. Muldoon’s work is full of paradox: playful but serious, elusive but direct, innovative but traditional. He uses traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, ballad, and...