Reflections on Johnny Cash and One of His Biggest Fans

The fan base of Johnny Cash is huge. The Man in Black’s ability through his music and his message to cross so many barriers that keep us apart is remarkable.

When I heard that Cash had passed on, though, there was one person in particular who I first thought of calling. But as I picked up the phone, I realized this was a call I could not complete. The person I was hoping to speak with was the kind of person who, in my mind, personified — more than anyone I knew — a Johnny Cash fan. But, in one of those tragic stories that so often fills the songs of country music, my close friend and Cash fan was no longer with us: he had died at the tender age of 32 in 1990.

When I heard Cash had passed on, I thought of Robin, who loved Johnny Cash, honky tonks, and nonviolent resistance. A gifted photographer, Robin’s favourite subjects were the folks who so often peopled Johnny Cash songs: the downtrodden, the people who do the sweat work in our society and, perhaps most importantly, the resisters who, whatever the odds, will try, like the prisoner in one Cash cellblock song (“The Wall”), vows to climb a wall no one’s ever scaled before.

Cash’s songs are not only about the folks who get kicked around; they are also about the folks who kick back in whatever way they can against a dehumanizing, vicious economic system. One can think of the guy who built his dream car over a twenty year period by sneaking car parts out of the factory, one piece at a time. Or the family who would get together and sing to help their troubled souls, in “Daddy Sang Bass.” Or the guy who, after 30 years of back-breaking labour on the factory floor, will not go into retirement too quietly, for his final act on his last day of work is to square accounts with the jerk of a foreman who’s busted his behind for years.

Robin was a dreamer who saw the world in the black and white terms you often found in the simple, truthful morality of a Cash tune. In the late 1980s, we worked together on a campaign to build support for the Innu people of Nitassinan (known to most Canadians as Labrador/Quebec), who were occupying runways to resist NATO war training which continues to this day. (The Innu, to our mutual delight, were also great Johnny Cash fans).

Sitting on Robin’s Parkdale porch, we dreamily discussed plans to invite Johnny Cash to Toronto to do a benefit concert (Willie Nelson and other country stars had just finished a “cowboys and Indians” tour demanding the release of Nelson Mandela and Leonard Peltier).

The plan was to invite Johnny to our favourite spot, the old Wheat Sheaf Tavern at Bathurst and King, for beers after the show. But in many respects, that dream died with Robin.

Lots of folks remember Robin from a legendary few days in jail following our arrests at the ARMX weapons fair in Ottawa in 1989. Almost 200 of us were arrested that May morning as Chilean, Salvadoran and apartheid arms dealers scoured the grounds of Lansdowne Park for the weapons of war and repression.

Packed seven and eight into cells built for one, Robin and I started a round of “How High’s the Water, Mamma? It’s Six Feet High and Risin'” which quickly evolved into a string of Cash hits that, though broken up occasionally by rounds of “Alice’s Restaurant,” covered a broad range of Cash tunes for hours on end. Brian Burch was in the cell, as was the late Rodney Bobiwash, another too-soon departed friend who insisted on a number of renditions of “Ira Hayes.”

In 1964, Cash recorded the Peter LaFarge song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the tale of a First Nations man who was one of the Marine heroes of the epic WWII battle at Iwo Jima, but who returned home to the racism that never disappeared: “Ira Hayes returned a hero, celebrated throughout the land/ He was wined and speeched and honoured, everybody shook his hand/ But He was just a Pima Indian, no water, no home, no chance/ At home nobody cared what Ira had done, and when do the Indians dance?”

This was for an album called “Bitter Tears, Ballads of the American Indian.” Cash performed the tune at the Newport folk festival among the likes of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, but many traditional country music DJs refused to play the tune. In response, Cash took out a full page advertisement in Billboard magazine (which refused to review the album). It was an open letter in which he boldly stated, “D.J.’s, station managers, owners etc., where are your guts?” He identified some programmers as “gutless” for using the reason that Ira Hayes did not fit their definition of a country song.

“‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine. So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam,” Cash told them, in reference to the riots which had torn northern cities as well as the unforgettable scenes of thousands of black people in the south going to jail in Alabama for freedom. “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes. Just one question: WHY???”

After singing most of the day and into the evening that May day in 1989, we were shackled together for the trip to the Ottawa Detention Centre. Robin laughed at how we were in leg irons, handcuffs, and chains around our waists for an act of nonviolent resistance whilst war criminals freely roamed the streets of Ottawa. We jangled our chains as Robin led us in a chorus of “You’re in the Jailhouse Now,” another Cash favourite.

It was something that would have drawn a wry smile from the Man in Black, who also “got it” when it came to the issue of prisons and prisoners. Robin and I often chortled about those who view country music as backward. At a time when “revolutionary” groups like Jefferson Airplane were doing jeans commercials, Cash was going into prisons and singing to folks who, he commented, were often in prison because they had migrated from the south during a mass turn to automation, when millions of old jobs were lost, and “you have to do somethin’ to eat.”

Indeed, on the liner notes to “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” Cash wrote: “The culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside, behind you, immediately becomes unreal…Down the cell block you hear a steel door open, then close. Like every other man that hears it, your first unconscious thought reaction is that it’s someone coming to let you out, but you know it isn’t. You sit on your cold, steel mattressless bunk and watch a cockroach crawl out from under the filthy commode, and you don’t kill it. You envy the roach as you watch it crawl out, under the cell door.”

Perhaps one of the things that made Cash so real to people was his complete lack of artifice. There was also no artifice in Robin. Like Cash, who was not above being crabby on stage if he had a cold and at least was honest about it, Robin always told the truth, even if it offended the tender sensibilities of folks who could not stomach it.

Robin was the kind of guy you could see in dozens of Cash songs. When I hear Cash singing about the rigors of working class life, I think of Robin’s string of sweaty jobs, from the mines of Sudbury to the roof of a Chrysler plant in Windsor, working on a detail whose only job was to douse the sparks and flames that daily flared at workers dealing with molten metal.

Cash’s late 60s and early 70s songs also spoke to the right of young people to resist war and racism. Of course, “The Man in Black” song itself is a stirring reminder of the need, as Martin Luther King pointed out time and again, for gadflies and resisters who refuse to buckle to the conformity of the times, whether that be going along with the killer cuts of the Harris/Eves regime in Ontario or the racist agenda which imprisons Muslims on secret evidence in Canadian prisons:

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose, In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes, But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day, And tell the world that everything’s OK, But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back, ‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

Like the Winter Soldiers* of old — a symbol of those who do not abandon the struggle when things get rough — Cash knew that there was never a time when we could not speak out against injustice. His wearing of black put it in front of our faces, in much the same way persistent vigils, protests, and other acts of resistance remind us that our work to make a better world is not yet done.

One of Robin’s favourite songs was the Randy Travis tune, “There’ll Always be a Honky Tonk Somewhere.” It’s a tribute to the enduring strength of the music that comprises the REAL (as opposed to the Shania Twain slick) country music. And it speaks to the fact that Cash’s tunes will live on for generations to come, and the words “I hear the train a-comin'” will continue to speak to the yearnings of so many millions of people whom we cruelly lock behind bars.

In the meantime, wherever you are, Robin, I hope you and Johnny can finally sit down and have that beer.

And I hope you don’t find it corny if I finish this with a quote from one of our favourite Cash numbers: “I Still Miss Someone.”

MATTHEW BEHRENS of Country Music Fans Against the Cuts. In 1995, a few short weeks after the mean government of Mike Harris came to power in Ontario, Country Music Fans Against the Cuts was formed by Behrens and Brian Burch. Recognizing the social justice tradition that lives in much of country music, we handed out flyers with country lyrics that were linked to the social disaster of the Harris government outside country music concerts. We have since formed an offshoot, Country Music Fans Against Secret Trials.