Johnny Cash Is a Hero to Americans on the Left and Right. But His Music Took a Side.

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Blood, Sweat and Tears is a concept album about working people that was recorded in July and August of 1961. But Blood, Sweat and Tears is a concept album about race in America. It is the only great record made in support of Black lives by a country music star, even if most people missed it when it was released. When we think of a civil rights album, we think of freedom songs. If Cash had just recorded his own interpretation of Odetta's "Freedom Trilogy" or Pete Seeger had done the same, the civil rights movement would have been brought to the attention of a live audience. Folk music can provide ten thousand bridges across which men of all nations may say, "You are my brother," according to musicologist and folklorist John Lomax. He sings of racial violence and murder on Blood, Sweat and Tears. He recorded these songs to confront his mostly white audience with the shocking, documented brutality their silence made possible. He stands as witness to his civil rights work.

It is hard to listen to Side One of Blood, Sweat and Tears twice in a row because of its cumulative power. Even if the record is in limited supply on Side Two, one really needs to flip the record to the other side to find some relief. Cash probably learned the original versions of the three songs on Side One from the recordings of Lomax. Cash rearranged, adapted, and added his own lyrics.

Cash begins the album with an eight­minute version of John Henry, following in a tradition of interpreting and interpreting the song about the steel­drivin' man. In his introduction to the song, he says that people from different parts of the country have tried to claim John Henry. It is possible that he assumed that John Henry was white because he didn't know where he came from. The identity of the subject, if not a Black convict, was well known by the time Cash considered recording it. The ballad of John Henry, the Negro steel­drivin' man, was described as America's greatest single piece of folk lore in the 1941 book Our Singing Country. The liner notes to Blue Ridge Mountain Music, one of the seven albums in the Southern Folk Heritage Series that Cash committed to memory, stated that the Mountain Ramblers version of the song tells the story of the Negro tunnel worker. Cash understood in 1962 that he was singing about a black man. John Henry was a real man, pushed into convict labor on a thin charge the way so many Black men were in the years after the Civil War, and who died on the job, though not before driving more steel than the steam drill. Cash could not have missed the representations of John Henry wearing a ball and chain that existed by 1962.

Try listening to several versions of the same song in a row, particularly the upbeat version by Merle Travis, Odetta's more somber version, and Cash's treatment at the end. Cash was in a drug addiction at the time he recorded the song. Marshall Grant remembered him banging pieces of rolled steel together on the floor to get the sound of a hammer hitting, but he was so high he beat his hands with a hammer. His work on Ride This Train sounded like a continuation of what he did on John Henry, because he mimicked sounds from the field, as if to make it seem more authentic, but in his delivery he is as much a narrator as a singer. Cash doesn't sound clean, the way he builds the song, the way Odetta does, as the story reaches the part about the race between John Henry and the steam drill. The shape he was in when he recorded Blood, Sweat and Tears was not good for the song, but it became a standard part of his show so that he could record it again.

Even if Columbia did not market Blood, Sweat and Tears, it is still a landmark achievement by a country music artist.

Cash has a remake of Leadbelly's "Take This Hammer." Cash must have thought that he could justify a new title by changing enough of the lyrics to justify it. The 1942 recording of Leadbelly singing "Take This Hammer" is straightforward. It is the story of a man fleeing from the chain gang and telling a new guy to tell the boss he was gone. He doesn't say much about why he's leaving except that he no longer wants cornbread and molasses. The lyrics of Our Singing Country included additional lines such as "Cap'n called me a nappy­headed devil" and "I don't want no cold iron shackles, around my legs, around my legs." When Odetta recorded the song live at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago in 1957, she used Leadbelly's version but reintroduced the "cold, iron shackles" line, which helped the audience better see the scene. Cash added several lines to the song that made the captain more violent. He doesn't care about the lousy cornbread hurting his pride. He dropped the shackles from Odetta's rendition. Cash's prisoner escapes from the chain gang because he can't take the "kicks and whipping". The captain called him a hardheaded devil, but since that is not his name, he is leaving. Cash introduces a degree of uncertainty in the song, saying that if the captain ever catches him, he will shoot him down. The line "Cap'n got a big gun, an' he try to play bad" was published by the Lomaxes and made it into no other recorded versions. When Cash sings about a gun, he lets out a "whoooa" as if the character is both impressed with and afraid of the gun. The howl sounds like he's not sure if he's doing the right thing. The new lyrics describe an overseer who whips convicts like mules, taunts them with names, and has the capacity to snuff out a convicts life thanks to his big gun. One dies, get another.

The third and final song on the first side of Blood, Sweat and Tears tells us what happened to the convict who fled the chain gang. The song was recorded in 1948, and was sung by a dishwasher named Vera Hall. Unlike "Tell Him I'm Gone", which is narrated by the convict, "Another Man Done Gone" is told from the perspective of a witness to a crime involving the convict.

Cash and Hall have differing versions of who committed the crime. She could see that the man had a long chain on, even though she didn't know his name. The most important line is that she says he killed another man in the original version. The man who was done gone is a murderer who is on the run after killing again. She sings at the end that she doesn't know where he is. Odetta recorded her second album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, in 1957, and it contained the song "Another Man Done Gone" from her book Our Singing Country. Odetta changed the song to "They killed another man" and dropped the line that she didn't know where the man was. Leon Bibb, a mentor to Odetta, added another line to the song, "They hunted him with hounds", which dispelled any doubt about what happened to our convict. Cash probably knew all of these interpretations and may have been inspired by the introduction of a new line.

Cash's version of "Another Man Done Gone" is the most harrowing on record. Cash sings the song a cappella, but his voice sounds as though it is coming from the bottom of a well, and it contrasts with the crystal. The voices of Cash and Carter lend a gothic feel to the story. Cash skips directly from the fact that he had a long chain on to the fact that he was hung in a tree. They let his children see. Cash sings these lines on his own. Carter repeats most of the lyrics, but not the ones about the lynching. The purity of her voice cannot match what our narrator has seen. Cash is not satisfied that his audience will fully understand the repulsive evils of lynching, even though he may have grasped it from his Arkansas childhood. The captain turned his head when he was hanging dead, he sings in his lowest register. The scene of a man being lynched in front of his family is so distressing that even the man who led the mob cannot bear to look at it. Cash recorded his song in the summer of 1962, when violence was rampant, and he is hoping to turn our stomachs and not make us want to hit the dance floor. After the album came out, a Klansman shot down NAACP leader Medgar Evers in front of his wife and children. The song concludes Side One with an exclamation point, saying that the lives of these exploited Black men, all in chains, mattered.

The second side of Blood, Sweat and Tears has a somber tone, but it lacks the terror of the first. Cash opens the album with a song called "Busted." Columbia released the single as the album's only single. Cash moved the song of a poor man who can go wrong to the cotton fields because Howard had set it in coal mining country. It sounds more like an Odetta song than a Burl Ives song or a Ray Charles song, as it is more consistent with the songs on the first side. Cash followed with a folk song about a railroad engineer who died in a wreck around the turn of the century. At the time Cash recorded the song, the Lomaxes and others agreed that a Black engine wiper named Wallace Saunders wrote the song, but it's not clear if he was the author. The Canton, Mississippi, roundhouse was where Saunders worked. The song "Casey Jones" is an example of interracial harmony, a song by a Black engine wiper honoring the memory of a brave white engineer. The song "Nine Pound Hammer" from Folk Songs of the Hills is more sober than the original, even as it relies on banjo picking as its signature sound. Cash's narrator is tired as he sings. If Blood, Sweat and Tears were just an album about working people, Cash could have chosen a song about another hammer swinger, but instead he chose a song about a Black man. The next song by Howard, "Chain Gang," confirms the theme by describing a Black character who is likely to end up on a chain gang. Cash sings that there is hope on a chain gang. The songs on the second side of the album are more ambiguous about the race of the subjects, so they could have been white. It is hard to believe that he thought that.

Columbia did not market Blood, Sweat and Tears that way, but it is still a landmark achievement by a country music artist. It is possible that Don Law did not fully appreciate what Cash had done with this album. He might have been compelled to comment on Jim Crow segregation by drawing from the wellspring of Black American folk blues, but he couldn't directly address it as a white Southerner. He said that he was trying to write about history so that people could understand what was happening. Cash brought his own experience, his own witness, as well as his research to the material. Cash acknowledged that he couldn't play all of the songs from the Mississippi Night and the Lomaxes' prison recordings when he described his fascination with them years later. He felt like an interloper, not knowing if it was his place to give voice to some of the songs that were born of Black pain. He didn't want to speak out beyond his music. At least not yet.

It would be easy to accuse Cash of cultural appropriation, especially since he lifted three songs from Black singers in Blood, Sweat and Tears. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones have been accused of cultural appropriation, as well as Elvis Presley, for ripping off Big Mama Thornton and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, in recent years. Cash took old songs that had been handed down by many others and reworked them. Blind Willie McTell admitted that he arranged his own songs. Odetta once said that there are people who are at their best when inventing. I am not inventive. I think my category would be embellishing invention. The interpreter. Cash embellished and interpreted Blood, Sweat and Tears. The Black American folk tradition is honored in the album. It is worth comparing Cash's interpretations on this album with the one that Patti Page did on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1962. It is cringe-inducing. When Leadbelly sings the song, he feels desperation because he knows the damage a weevil can do to a sharecropper's family. The song was turned into a children's song by the author, who thought it would be a good theme for a suburban sitcom. That is a kind of interpretation, but it is not the kind that interested Cash. Folk music that Cash liked had a sharp edge. The story of America's history with racial violence is told in his interpretation of most of the songs. It is not for children. It is not for Ed Sullivan.

The significance of Blood, Sweat and Tears was not thought of by segregationists or others who thought Cash was one of them. Although Cash performed several times in his shows, he did not say anything about the civil rights battles in the South as they intensified. Cash did not do anything to provoke the segregationists in the years of the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. He was under pressure from Columbia to produce his first hit in years, "Ring of Fire", and after that, he devoted himself to making his next concept album, "Bitter Tears". The Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson at the end of 1964, and he recorded the B-side to his single, "All God's Children Ain't Free". Cash said that the song was mostly about poor people not being equally free, but it also gestured toward prisoners and supported civil rights. He fought back against the National States' Rights Party for accusing him of being married to a Black woman, but it seemed like a personal feud.

The political life and times of Johnny Cash was written by Michael Stewart Foley. All rights reserved. Basic Books is an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.


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