“I say what I think in many of these songs, “wrote Johnny Cash in the notes of the album Man in Black, released Today 50 years ago. He may be best known now for the outlaw songs of his youth or the accounts of death on his final recordings, but Cash used his 1971 album to expose his less discussed political vision: long on feelings and empathy, and short on ideology and partisanship. The United States seemed hopelessly polarized, and Cash faced that division head-on, demanding more from his fellow citizens and Christians amid the seemingly endless Vietnam War.
More than a year earlier, in January 1970, at the beginning of the second season of his television variety show, Cash said he supported President Nixon’s handling of the war. In the wake of the massive anti-war protests, it seemed to many that Cash had joined the “silent majority” of Americans who, according to Nixon, backed his peace plans. Cash had also taken his show to Vietnam to play for the troops a year earlier, assuring them that, unlike the “assholes” protesting at home, most Americans backed them. A veteran of the US Air Force, Cash related to soldiers just trying to do their job.
But when Cash appeared in the Nixon White House in April 1970, he had changed his mind. In the song Route # 1, Box 144, he made it clear that his main concern was American families risking and losing their children’s lives in war. And in What Is Truth, he defended the “lonely voice of the youth” that questioned a war in which so many Americans were dying and could be called upon to fight next. When Cash played What Is Truth at the White House, news anchor Dan Rather reported that “it seemed to surprise the president a bit.”
A few weeks later, after Nixon sent ground troops to Cambodia and the nation erupted in protest at the invasion and murder of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio, the president contrasted the American soldiers, whom he called ” the biggest “. with the “vagabonds” on college campuses. Cash never again spoke a word of support for the president in public.
When Man in Black came out a year later, Cash used the notes to acknowledge that, “Yeah, I feel different than I did a year ago about so-and-so,” and it could only have been Nixon. “A year ago, I had thought much less than now.” The album the buyer was holding, he hinted, expressed his most considerate views.
At the heart of the album is the title track, which, already released as a single, articulated Cash’s vision of himself as a citizen artist. The song’s wartime origins are often overshadowed by the phrase that Cash wore black “for the poor and beaten / who live on the hungry and desperate side of town.” He speaks of his empathy for the oppressed and those who struggle, but this is a man in funeral garb: “I dress in black in mourning for the lives that could have been / Every week we lose a hundred good young people.”
Cash first performed the song for a group of students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville on his television show in February 1971. That show featured segments of dialogue between Cash and the Vanderbilt students, filmed on their campus, interwoven with performances by young rising stars: James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Tony Joe White and Neil Young. In one of the campus conversations, a student asked Cash why he always wore black. When they reconvened the following week to record the musical performances at the Ryman Auditorium, Cash had come up with Man in Black, debuting the song with the help of cue cards, as he had only finished the lyrics that morning. Few viewers could have overlooked the importance of Cash singing to recruiting-age students, who, regardless of what they might have thought 10 months earlier, now saw him as one of their own.
A few weeks later, during a monologue at the end of the episode, Cash returned to portray Man in Black, dedicating it to a group of Kentucky military personnel who came to see the show at the Ryman. There could be no question about Cash’s association of the song with the war and the American military. After the camera moved to show the men in uniform, Cash said, “This is my uniform. For four years I wore the uniform of the United States Air Force; now they call me the man in black. ”This time, Cash played a more austere version of the song, he was playing guitar with only the rhythm section not visible, so his excitement reached the viewers at home.
As he approached the line of wearing black in mourning, he became more animated and angry, projecting his voice to the point of almost screaming. Ryman’s audience gave him a rousing cheer of support.
When listeners flipped the album to side two, they immediately heard another new war song that Cash had performed for the first time on his TV show: Singin ‘in Viet Nam Talkin’ Blues. Cash said he wrote the song “for all the military, especially those who are abroad and want to go home.” As a veteran, he said, “I know how you feel.” The song is a folk narrative of a café, a talking about blues, from his January 1969 trip to Long Binh. He recounts acting for the soldiers, the enemy bombing the base and seeing the wounded arrive by helicopter “night after night, day after day.” In the last part of the song, Cash clearly says that he is less concerned with “whether or not we belong there” than with honoring the troops and being aware of the human costs of war. As he sang the last line about hoping that the war would end, “and everyone will come home,” he practically yelled, “To stay, in peace!”
In Man in Black and Singin ‘in Viet Nam Talkin’ Blues, Cash rejected any association with the “silent majority.” Instead of supporting Nixon’s old promises of “peace with honor,” Cash begged for peace now.. In those songs, he reminded everyone who listened that, regardless of the justifications, the cost of the Vietnam War – the lives of tens of thousands of “good young men” – was unacceptable.
These comments carry real political weight, but more subtly powerful is the political implication of Cash’s faith. He had first performed the opening track, the awkwardly titled The Preacher Said, “Jesus Said,” on a special gospel episode of The Johnny Cash Show accompanied by evangelist Billy Graham. Cash sings from the perspective of young people seeking answers in times of greed, hatred, and trouble. Politically speaking, it first appears to be a light song, a gift to Graham that sounds like a country music distillation of a preacher doing what preachers do: saving souls.
But Cash wasn’t interested in saving one soul at a time. In Man in Black, he showed how his policy of empathy derived from a more active, almost activist attitude. – Application of Christian teachings to contemporary social problems.
Look for Me was written by Glen Sherley and Harlan Sanders, two ex-cons in whom Cash had had a special interest: Cash played Sherley’s Greystone Chapel in At Folsom Prison. album, with Sherley present as a prisoner. Cash combines a countercultural theology of seeing God in nature with a message of saving social order through love and charity: look for Jesus in the way bees guide a bear to feed its hunger, but also look for him. in those who “raise the beggar”, who care for an abandoned baby. The idea is that the listener can find Jesus in himself if he only extends his care and concern to others. Rather than trying to save one soul at a time, as Graham would do, Cash pressured fellow Christians to fulfill their civic and Christian responsibility, to lift up those left behind in times of precariousness and misery.
As Cash made clear in Dear Madam, he had no patience with those who couldn’t empathize with the outcast. The song is written as a letter from a prisoner to the widow of a prisoner who has passed away and, since no one came to claim his body, he is buried outside the prison walls. “No matter how terrible his crime was,” Cash sings, “the death that died today was more inhumane.” The song is a damning criticism of a society that distances itself from the prisoners and the humble. He also has empathy for those who are left to rot and die alone, out of sight and abandoned.
By the time the album concludes with the upbeat I Talk to Jesus Every Day, intended to function as a closing hymn, making you feel better, the man in black has carried away the darkness of hard times, as if absorbing them into his clothes. .
Half a century later, with so many experts telling us that we are experiencing “unprecedented” political polarization in America, the Man in Black still has something to teach us about citizenship. Cash practices a politics based on empathy, putting aside partisanship and ideological dogma to find in our own experience a means to identify with “the repressed.” With so many people today still held back, from freedom and from each other, we should listen again, and listen carefully, to the songs of Man in Black.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism