American VI: Ain’t No Grave by Johnny Cash (American Recordings)
For many years Johnny Cash was dismissed as a middle-of-the-road country singer. People forgot how dangerous he had seemed when he first started recording at Sam Phillip’s Sun studio in Memphis, along with the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. After all, this was the man who sang, in ‘Folsom Prison Blues’: ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ That song, which is written from the point of view of a convicted murderer, hardly fits in with the kind of sentimental material which we associate with easy-listening country music, as represented by Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, for example. That line, which is probably one of the most striking in the history of American popular song, strikes me as country music’s equivalent of the moment in Coleridge’s famous poem, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, when the sailor shoots the beautiful and beneficent albatross for no good reason, thereby bringing catastrophe to his ship and his fellow-sailors. It forces us to ask ourselves: why do human beings gratuitously commit the most evil acts? and does the gift of free will demand too high a price?
Even if you think I’m going too far here, it has to be said that Cash’s main preoccupations as a performer have been with the darker side of life. He has always been able to make a light-hearted love song sound like a meditation on death, desolation and despair. Listen, for example, to ‘I Walk The Line’ or ‘Ring of Fire’. This tendency to despondency was, of course, always held in check (and perhaps thereby intensified ?) by his very public and defiant commitment to Christianity. Thus in his song of self-justification, ‘The Man in Black’, he explains that he dresses in dark colours ‘for the poor and the beaten down’, and can’t help but add that he does so also for ‘those who never read / Or listened to the words that Jesus said’.
At least, then, let us agree that Cash is not a talent to be dismissed lightly. It’s fascinating to chart the ups and downs of his reputation, and to ponder the miraculous ascent of his career in the years leading up to his death. I’m referring of course to the series of recordings which he made with the producer Rick Rubin from 1993 to 2003, when he died. On these albums Cash re-recorded some of his old songs; and he also offered new material, such as ‘The Man Comes Around’, which is his version of the Book of Revelation. Moreover he offered unadorned acoustic versions of not only traditional American ‘roots music’ but also ‘pop’ material. His version of John Lennon’s ‘In My Life’ makes it sound like the statement of a man nearing his end – thereby revealing that a strong sense of mortality was always present in that composition by a young, successful and apparently carefree Beatle. Nor did Cash exclude the more extreme forms of ‘alternative rock’. Who can forget the deeply affecting sound of Cash intoning the sombre lyrics of Trent Reznor’s lament, ‘Hurt’?
The last of the series, which consists of material recorded in the few months of 2003 between the death of his wife June and his own demise, stands up to comparison with earlier volumes. Like the host of the wedding feast at Cana, Rick Rubin might have been expected to leave the second-rate material until last, but this is far from the case. Cash renders the title track, a Negro spiritual which I seem to recall hearing the majestic Sister Rosetta Tharpe perform, so that one is simultaneously aware both of his approaching death and the strength of his faith: ‘There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down / When you hear that trumpet sound / Gonna get up out of the ground / There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.’ Typically, he juxtaposes this with a contemporary song by a performer more often associated with secular entertainment, namely Sheryl Crow. In his version of ‘Redemption Day’, Cash brings out the sense of frustration at the evils and injustices of the world, while giving full force to the notion of divine judgement (of the wicked) and deliverance (of the good). Other gems include his serene rendition of the Tom Paxton classic, ‘Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’: the image of life as a journey is given a new resonance; we come away from this performance with a sense of how strange, difficult and lonely the sheer act of survival can be; but also we realise how necessary it is to embrace rather than evade suffering.
The necessity for acceptance, and for resolution in the face of mortality, is brought out in Cash’s own song, ‘1 Corinthians 15:55’. This is an elaboration on the words of St Paul – ‘O death, where is thy sting? / O grave, where is thy victory?’ – set to a charming, old-fashioned waltz tune which seems initially incongruous but then sublimely appropriate. Cash certainly brings that particular passage to newly triumphant life.
It’s not appropriate for me to go through, track by track, ticking them off or giving marks out of five. You really have to immerse yourself in the whole experience. From Bob Nolan’s song of physical and spiritual thirst, ‘Cool Water’, to Queen Lili’uokalani’s Hawaian song of farewell, ‘Aloha Oe’, you can’t help but feel privileged to be in the company of a talent so wide and deep. And you can’t help but marvel at how he managed to affirm the power of music, and the preciousness of life, in face of his imminent death. You don’t have to share Cash’s religious faith to feel inspired and uplifted by this album; you just need to listen.