Alan Edwards looks at the role of faith in the life and music of Johnny Cash

Three hundred years since the birth of Charles Wesley; 30 years since Elvis died. 2007 is a year of musical anniversaries; among them, 75 years since Johnny Cash, musics ‘Man in Black’, was born in Arkansas.

The recent film, Walk the Line, brought the Country & Western icon to a wider audience, but it didn’t explore Johnny’s loss and recovery of his Christian faith. Cash and his music need to be placed within the American Protestant tradition, a tradition in which battles against sin echoed the battles to push the frontier westward. Warfare has defeats as well as victories. Cash experienced both.

White collar blues

To the rural poverty of childhood was added a permanent sense of pain following the death in a sawmill accident of his elder brother. Cash found solace sharing the family’s faith and its Country Gospel music voice. Although he began writing songs at 12, he did not learn the guitar until he began military service.

Upon discharge, he and his new wife moved to Memphis, auditioning in 1954 at the studio which launched Presley. Asked if he could play anything other than Gospel, he replied with Hey Porter. The song tells of a migrant worker’s eagerness to return to his native South and was an immediate hit. Folsom Prison Blues followed, a stark portrayal of a convict who ‘shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’ Other songs celebrated a worker flooring a bullying foreman or told of assembly line boredom.

If Dylan articulated the angst of middle-class students, Cash became the voice of the blue-collar outsider. Folsom Prison Blues and his prison concerts (most famously at San Quentin) built the image. Some believed he had also been imprisoned. Although this was not true, there was truth in seeing him as a man identified with society’s losers – American Indians (he claimed Cherokee descent), prisoners, exploited workers or those fighting addiction.

Fame put pressure on his marriage and led to drug and drink problems. He agonized about the weakness that led to a downward path, on whose descent he lost his Christian faith. His song I Walk the Line tells of his struggle to be faithful to his wife. ‘The good that he would he did not’ and growing addiction led to divorce.

Evangelical conversion

Evangelical conversion testimonies often stress the depravity from which the sinner had been rescued. Amazing Grace, by the one-time slave ship captain Newton, is a verse example. Cash’s descent to the depths and eventual salvation stand in that tradition.

The earthly agent of his redemption was June Carter, member of a famous Country & Western family. Her love helped him conquer addiction and turn to Christ in 1967. He and June, who became his wife, shared in Billy Graham campaigns while continuing to write and perform, in styles ranging from Country to Rock, until their deaths in 2003.

Redeemed himself, Cash never forgot those still in the Slough of Despond. His voice remained as rugged as his face. His guitar remained strung across his back like a rifle. He continued to dress in black, partly for his outlaw image but also, as he explained:

I wear the black for the poor and broken down, Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town. For the prisoner who has long paid for his crime But is there because he’s a victim of the time. I wear it for the sick and hungry old. For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold. Just so we’re reminded of the ones beaten back, There needs to be one in front who’s dressed in black.

Above all for ‘those who’ve never read or listened to the words that Jesus said.’ In its understanding of those undergoing the dark night of the soul, Johnny Cash’s music is octaves away from the glibness of many modern worship songs. The melancholic Cowper rather than the cheerful Cliff would be his companion as he walked the Glory Road. In 2007, when we recall the ending of the slave trade, but also those still enslaved, give a thought to The Man in Black, voice of the outcast.