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Loving the Man in Black

Adios, Johnny Cash

by JESSE WALKER

Everybody loved Johnny Cash. I don’t care how much someone swears he hates country music, how long he rants against cowboy hats and checkered shirts and the Grand Old Opry and Goo Goo Clusters. Just wait till he pauses to catch his breath, and then say, "What about Johnny Cash?"

"Oh," he’ll tell you. "Johnny Cash is all right."

Cash was one of the great figures of modern popular music, but as I spend the day cycling through the dozen-plus albums of his that I’ve accumulated over the years, I’m thinking about more than how much I like his records. I’m pondering his iconic stature: his status as the one American that everybody loved. Once I saw a band from Zimbabwe play a concert, and we all laughed when they announced that they were going to play a song "written for us by Johnny Cash." But then they broke into an Afropop version of "Ring of Fire," and everyone looked kind of nonplussed for about a second — and then we all started dancing. Because everybody loves that song. Everybody loves Johnny Cash.

It’s part of the Cash legend that he "came out against the Vietnam War." That he did, but the way he did it is telling. The song in question, "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues," relates how he and June Carter Cash went to play for the boys overseas, and how much they liked the soliders, and how rough things are over there; it ends with the declaration that they sure hope the boys can come home soon, "in peace." Even Ann Coulter would feel mighty churlish calling a man a traitor for that, or for this little speech he gave at a concert in 1969, right after singing a tribute to the men who died at the Alamo:

Everywhere we go these days, it seems like, all of a sudden, reporters and people will ask us questions — ask us questions about things that they didn’t use to ask. It seems like everyone’s concerned about our national problems, about the war in Vietnam — as we have long been. And they say things like, "How do you feel about the Vietnam situation, the war in Vietnam?"

I’ll tell you exactly how I feel about it. This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. And–

(loud cheering from the crowd)

And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn’t it?" And I said, "No, that don’t make me a hawk. No. No, that don’t make me a hawk."

(more cheering, not as loud)

But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for ‘em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."

(wild cheering)

And then he sings a peacenik folk song, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."

I saw Cash play just once in my life. It was 1995, and he was riding high from the success of his American Recordings album; the concert was in Seattle, and he had just recorded a track with some local rockers, including Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Sean Kinney of Alice in Chains. The crowd was a mosaic of the city: grunge kids and grandmas, hippies and cowboys, Christians and drunks.

Everybody seemed to love the show. Because everybody loves Johnny Cash.

JESSE WALKER is an associate editor at Reason magazine and author of Rebels on the Air: an Alternative History of Radio in America. This essay originally appeared on his entertaining blog, The Perpetual Three Dot Column. He can be reached at: jwalkernot@earthlink.net