July 2009

Paul Franz


Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity by Leigh Edwards

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity seeks to fill a gap in the existing secondary literature on Johnny Cash: between biographical accounts that attribute the singer's contradictory image to "mere personality quirks" and historical and cultural surveys that treat his work incidentally as part of broader phenomena, such as the country music genre. Although the author's stated concern is with Cash's "cultural meaning," Edwards's scholarly practice draws on both sides of this divide. While showing how Cash was influenced by his historical context, she also argues that his distinctive sensibility made him an innovative interpreter of musical tradition, and, by extension, of American history. In particular, Edwards is interested in how Cash's "embodiment" of various tensions -- between modernity and rural life; "rambling" and domesticity; frontier ideals and support for Native-American rights; patriotism and social protest; religion and sin -- sheds light on modern American identity.

Edwards does not claim that these contradictory commitments are present in all of Cash's works; instead, she argues that Cash equivocates between them over the course of his career. This accounts for the relative frequency in her work of appeals to the singer's "body of work," "oeuvre," and "oeuvre as a whole." This analytic frame can claim some justification from Cash's persistent self-characterization -- echoing the judgment of his critics and peers -- as a "walking contradiction." In practice, Edwards's holistic approach yields a dizzying array of "objects of study," ranging from Cash's "two autobiographies and his lyrics, music, liner notes, interviews, and the marketing of his iconographic Man in Black image" to "how others have depicted him in biographies, in first wife Vivian Cash's posthumous publication of his letters to her, in documentaries and music journalism," and so on.

Although Edwards mainly addresses her fellow academics, this paperback's attractive typography and layout -- complete with old-timey curlicues and silhouetted guitars adorning chapter and section divisions -- suggest that her publisher is also courting non-specialists. Both groups of readers will be most indebted to Edwards for tracking thematic patterns across a vast range of (often obscure) works in disparate media. And yet, with this strength comes a danger. Given the scope of her study, it is understandable that Edwards treats much of her material in summary form. The problem is that when she does concentrate on individual texts, Edwards's readings can be inattentive, inaccurate, or both. This is most troubling when her presentation seems distorted by rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

At their most innocuous, these problems consist in simple oversights. Consider the following discussion of Cash's on-air profession of faith during a taping of his TV program The Johnny Cash Show, which ran from 1969-1971. As Edwards explains:

To the chagrin of network executives, Cash introduced the hymn "I Saw a Man" at the end of one episode by saying,"I am a Christian" and citing his struggle with God and the devil, in typical Southern Baptist terms: "The number one power in this world is God. The number two power is Satan, and though he manages to fight for second in my life, I want to dedicate this song to the proposition that God is the victor in my life."

Cash's description of his struggle with temptation may indeed reflect Southern Baptist concerns-but what about his unmistakable verbal echo of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," which refers to "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?" Were echoes of Lincoln "typical," as Edwards puts it, of Southern religious expression? To be sure, Cash's use of this phrase may not signal a deliberate allusion to Lincoln. That said, as Edwards later points out, he included a recitation of the "Gettysburg Address" on his 1972 concept album, America: A 200-year salute in story and song not long after this program. How would our interpretation of his performance change if we knew that Cash, even subconsciously, had Lincoln on his mind? In light of her focus on Cash's engagement with national symbols, Edwards's silence represents a missed opportunity to explore his investment in an important American figure.

Less significant in terms of her overall argument, but more disturbing in its treatment of source material, is Edwards's account, later in her book, of Johnny Cash's guest appearance on The Simpsons. Here is her summary, as part of a discussion of Cash's exploration of the dichotomy between sin and holiness:

In a later foray into animated television, Cash famously provided the voice of God in a 1997 episode of The Simpsons. After eating spicy chili, Homer Simpson hallucinates and imagines himself wandering through the desert, where he encounters a talking coyote that he believes is channeling the voice of God (Cash) but who is also a trickster figure. Cash's distinctive voice and saint-sinner persona make him the best candidate for God's voice in the realm of satirical animated television.

The problem here is not just Edwards's unsupported conclusion (it is not self-evident why Cash's "saint-sinner persona" would make him a good, let alone "the best candidate" to play the voice of God), nor her equivocation between asserting that Cash played the voice of "God" and a coyote Homer "believes is channeling the voice of God." It is more basic than that. Never in this episode is it suggested that Homer believes the coyote is God. As viewers of The Simpsons will recall, the coyote first appears in the sky as a disembodied face, then rematerializes at Homer's feet, where it instantly identifies itself: "Fear not, Homer, I am your spirit guide." If Edwards had left it at that, readers could have easily made the connection between Cash's role on The Simpsons and his image as "a windswept outlaw holy man." Instead, she has misrepresented her source and obscured a legitimate argument.

Some mistakes are innocent. But what about selective, misleading quotation to prove a point? In a chapter devoted to Cash's persona as the "Man in Black," Edwards provides the following account of his song "Lead Me Father":

He asks God to guide him ("Show me work that I should carry on for Thee"), and he specifically asks for the fortitude to write songs that will help workers: "And give me the strength for a song / That the words I sing" might give strength to and help poor workers.

The excerpt she quotes only confirms Cash's well-established use of religious motifs. What is at stake here is whether Cash puts his faith in the service of "working-class advocacy." Her quotation cuts off precisely before the words that might confirm or challenge this claim. As it happens, the complete passage runs as follows:

Lead me Father with the staff of life, give me the strength for a song, That the words I sing might more strength bring To help some poor troubled weary worker along.

In general, these lines might seem to support Edwards's reading-except that, throughout her work, she has been at pains to show that Cash's identification with society's underdogs is not merely a celebration of individuals but instead offers "structural criticisms." In this light, Cash's actual invocation of a singular "poor troubled weary worker" sounds strikingly different from the plural "poor workers" of Edwards's ventriloquism. Elsewhere in her work, Edwards has provided substantial evidence for her general claim, citing Cash's advocacy on behalf of prisoners and the treaty-rights of Native American tribes. Here, however, when confronted with an example that does not unambiguously support her argument, she attempts to disguise it with tendentious paraphrase.

Johnny Cash is a remarkable figure in 20th century American popular music, and Edwards is right that "there is a clear need to analyze the entire scope of his media image and career." It is less clear that this can or should be accomplished in a single volume. Edwards has made an important first step in surveying and accounting for the range of popular responses to Cash's work, including those of his fellow musicians. Unfortunately, her focus on breadth at the expense of detail means that too much is lost in translation.


Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity by Leigh Edwards
Indiana University Press
ISBN: 0253220610
256 Pages


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