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The Repertory and Style of a Country Singer: Johnny Cash

Author(s): Frederick E. Danker


Reviewed work(s):
Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 85, No. 338 (Oct. - Dec., 1972), pp. 309-329
Published by: American Folklore Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539321 .
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FREDERICK
E. DANKER

The Repertory
andStyleof a CountrySinger
JohnnyCash

ITISNOT SURPRISINGthat suchan importantand creativecountrysinger


PERHAPS
as JohnnyCashhas not been accordedany detailedstudy in terms of repertory
and style when we considerthe infrequencyof scholarlycommenton modern
countrymusic and its singers.Coupledwith the reluctanceof folkloriststo take
"commercialized folk music"seriouslyand the tendencyto considerall modern
(post-940o) countrymusic as partof popularmusichas been the relativelack of
focus until recentlyon the individual singer and his total repertory.Happily,
several recent books and articles have been directedto these areas.' With the
seminalworkof folkloristslike Ives and Abrahamsopeningthe way, we can bet-
ter appreciatethe directionof some of the most recentpaperson folklore theory
that recommenda greaterfocus on performance,context, communicativeproc-
esses,transmissionmeans,and the role of the individualtransmitterand interpre-
ter in sustainingtraditionand, consequently,the shape of tradition.2Particularly
in the caseof the countrysingerwe arefacedwith the vexing issueof the profes-
sional oral performer,or "folk professional,"and his relationto what we have
usually regardedas folksong and a traditionalcontext of either life style or
performance.
Creativeperformerswithincountrymusicofferus muchmaterialin considering
the relationbetweenfolk and popularestheticsand ruraland urbaninfluenceson

1 Henry Glassie, Edward D. Ives, and John F. Szwed, Folksongs and Their Makers (Bowling
Green, Ohio, n.d.); Almeda Riddle, A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle's Book of Ballads, ed.
Roger D. Abrahams, (Baton Rouge, La., 1970); Edward Ives, Lawrence Doyle: The Farmer-Poet
of Prince Edward Island-A Study in Local Songmaking (Orono, Me., 97I ); Edward Ives, Larry
Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs (Bloomington, Ind., 1964); Loman D. Cansler, "He
Hewed His Own Path: William Henry Scott, Ozark Songmaker," Studies in the Literary Imagina-
tion, 3 (1970), 5-34; Roger D. Abrahams, "Creativity, Individuality, and the Traditional Singer,"
Studies in the LiteraryImagination, 3
(I970), 37-63.
2 In particular,Dan Ben-Amos,"Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context,"JOURNAL OF
AMERICAN FOLKLORE, 84 (I971), 3-15; Roger D. Abrahams, "Personal Power and Social Restraint
in the Definition of Folklore," JOURNALOF AMERICAN FOLKLORE, 84 (I97I), 16-30; Kenneth S.
Goldstein, "On the Application of the Concepts of Active and Inactive Traditions to the Study of
Repertory," JOURNAL OF AMERICAN FOLKLORE, 84 (197I), 62-67.
310 FREDERICK E. DANKER

repertoryand style. The influenceof the urbansoundsof Memphis,Nashville,or


Bakersfieldon countryperformersis a complexphenomenon,but little studyof
the repertoriesand styles of singers beyond the early string bands and later
bluegrassgroupshasbeenattempted.
In a recentrevisionof the introductionof his Patternin the MaterialFolk Cul-
ture of the EasternUnited States (1968) HenryGlassie notes that the "popular
objecthas been acceptedby the innovativeindividualbecauseit saveshim time, is
more quicklyproducedor bought,and is easierto use than the traditionalobject
-and also becauseit is new."3This sort of commentimpingeson countrymusic
in the areaof instrumentation and in its relationshipto traditionalsongs and song
types. As Glassie goes on to note: "The interactionof popularand folk cultures
has not resultedexclusivelyin modificationsof folk culture-the vitalityof today's
best popular music comes directly (as in the case of the ChambersBrothers
or JohnnyCash) or indirectly (as in the case of Bob Dylan or JerryGarciaof
the GratefulDead) out of folk music."'4Without trying to argue the place of
modern,post-1940, countrymusicin or out of folk music,I will try in this paper
to studythe rangeof JohnnyCash'srepertoryand certainaspectsof his perform-
ance style relatedto that repertoryin the hope that light can be shed on the role
of the creativeindividualboth in a traditionalcultureand context and in one
transitionaltowardthe popular.It is perhapsthat uniquetension-the between-
cultures-and-worlds aspectof moderncountrymusic-that accountsfor its essence.

Repertory
Cash'srepertoryis wide-rangingin both active and passiveaspects.In exam-
ining Cash'spublic-performance repertoryof over 350 songs, I draw upon nu-
merouslive performances,single and albumrecordings,televisionperformances,
films, and song folios. Of great assistanceis the recentpublicationby the John
EdwardsMemorialFoundationof JohnL. Smith'sdiscographyand the Dial Press
Songs of JohnnyCash.5As has been noted frequently,the time limitationof ap-
proximatelythreeminutesper side and the demandsof recordproducerson folk
musicians (often alreadyfolk professionalsbefore they entered the recording
studio) in the i920s and i930s resultedin the eventualdepletionof their tradi-
tional song repertories.The demandfor two differentsongs for each recording
led to the compositionof new songs, sometimesmodeled closely on traditional
lyrics,but just as often revelatoryof new contextsfor songmakingalong the lines
of the urban/ruralsyndrome.The rise of the individual recordingstar on the
model of Vernon Dalhart,JimmieRodgers,and, later,Roy Acuff and his associ-
ates at the GrandOle Opry in the 1940s and 195os, alongsidethe presenceof
the stringbandsand vocal duos, broughtgreatchangesin the life stylesand per-
formancecontextsof countrysingers.At the same time the spreadof the record

8 Henry Glassie, "Artifacts: Folk, Popular, Imaginary and Real," in Icons of Popular Culture, ed.
Marshall Fishwick and Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1970), xo6.
4 Ibid., I09.
5 John L. Smith, Johnny Cash Discography and Recording History (1955-1968), John Edwards
Memorial Foundation, Special Series, no. 2 (Los Angeles, 1969), John Cash, Songs of Johnny Cash,
ed. Bob Cornfield (New York, 1970). All recording dates are taken from Smith.
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 31I

market,radio,andpersonalappearances to urbancentersin bothNorth andSouth


greatly altered Sales
repertories. of "hits" becamethe meansof judginga singer's
and
importance exposureby recordcompanies.Producersand A&Rmen centered
in urbanenvironmentshave determinedmore and more what is composedand
whatis recorded.
Manyof these entrepreneurshave no relationby origin or estheticto folk cul-
tures,or they tryto forget their folk originswith everyrecordingtheymake.The
growthof a bevyof countrymusicsongwritersin Nashville duringthe last fifteen
years reflectsthis situation. Of course, these writers also reflectthe change in
audiencetaste.Urbanizationof ruralfolk-the tensionsinvolved in the breakup
of ruralmores,families,and farmingpatterns-is seen in the themesof the new
songs. Yet, wheresuchearly "stars"as Acuff, Tubb,and Williams often used or
adaptedtraditionalsongs or composedtheir own, many of their successorsonly
get to know a song composedby someoneelse in the studio.It is remarkablethat
a singer like JohnnyCashmanagesto composenearlyall the songs he sings and
recordsand continuesto adapt traditionalmaterials.Few others, notablyBuck
Owens,Merle Haggard,and Tom T. Hall, havecomposedtheirown songs.
The repertoryof a modern countrysinger like Cash is not easy to study. A
varietyof methods offer themselves.By dividing repertoryinto traditionaland
nontraditionalmaterialsome insight into developmentswithin countrymusicand
its estheticmight be gained.By framinga studyaroundCash'sown compositions,
traditionalitems, and songs composed by others, another perspectivewould
emerge.Perhapsmoremeaningfulwouldbe an approachseparatingnarrativefrom
lyricsong. None of theseseemsto me entirelysatisfactoryfor the purposesof this
initial study.My categorieswill entailsome overlappingof songs;severalwill be
seen to fit into two or threecategories.What I have triedto do is to put songsinto
categoriesbroadenoughto illuminethe generalfeaturesof Cash'srepertorysince
1955, bearingin mind the conventionalneeds of folklore scholarshipand at the
same time the traditionsof countrymusicitself. More specifically,theseclassifi-
cationsstem in largepartfrom some thirteenyearsof observingCashin live per-
formanceson about sixteen different occasions,taking into accounthis entire
recordedrepertoryand, finally, examiningrecenttelevisionappearances(sound
tapeshavingbeen madeof all his JohnnyCashShowperformancesand nearlyall
guest shots)."Traditionalmaterialas a whole will be discussedfirstand then his
repertoryunderthe following headings:ballads,heartsongs/bluessongs,folk and
folk-countrylyric songs, religioussongs, and miscellaneouscountryand contem-
porarysong.
TRADITIONALSONGS. Traditionalsongs and adaptationsof them have made
up a significantpartof Cash'srepertorysincehis firstyearsof recordingand per-
forming. While there is evidencefrom the copyrightinformationon his various
adaptationsthat he has used printedsources,such as the Lomaxcollections,it is
equallyobviousthathe has learnedmorefromcountrymusicrecordingsand radio
shows listened to in his youth in Arkansas. Futher in-depth study needs to be
6 At the Grand Ole
Opry (1957), at a small sports arena in Ithaca, New York (I96i), at Carne-
gie Hall (May 1962), at the Newport Folk Festival (1964, 1969), on four or five occasions at an
open-air park in Reeds Ferry, New Hampshire (1962-1968), at the New York Folk Festival (June
1965), at Hartford, Connecticut (June 1966), in Boston on three occasions (1968, 1969, 1970),
and at Saratoga Springs, New York (June
1971).
312 FREDERICK E. DANKER

basedon interviewswith Cashto determineexactsources.However,Cashhimself


acknowledgesin his notes to Balladsof the True West, an album rich in tradi-
tional material,the influenceof Tex Ritter and the Lomaxes'CowboySongs.
What is importanthere is Cash'sconcernfor presentingtraditionalmaterialin
his own stylealongwith his own songsand thoseof othersat a time (1955-1957)
when most of the other young countrysingers were avoiding the use of such
material.In additionto "The Wreck of the Old 97" Cashrecorded"The Rock
Island Line" for his first album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!,
releasedin September1957. On the recordlabel the song is attributedsolely to
John R. Cash,but it is probablyan adaptationof Leadbelly'srecordingof the tra-
ditionalwork song and its printedtext.' Most interestingis the third traditional
song recordedfor Sun, "New Mexico,"a variantof "TheHills of Mexico" (Laws
BIob) closely relatedto "The BuffaloSkinners"(Laws Bioa). This recording
was not releasedas a single and only appearedon the last in a seriesof albumsSun
issuedafter Cashmoved to Columbiain 1958. I have not found Cash'sexacttext
in anyprintedsource,althoughit resemblesthe Lomaxtext entitled"BogyCreek"
in CowboySongs (pp. 41-42), reducingthe eight stanzasof the Lomaxversion
to five. It is a fine, starkperformancewith the TennesseeTwo (LutherPerkins'
electricguitarand MarshallGrant'sstringbass) with someoneelse'spiano obbli-
gato (Charlie Rich?) and sung straightthrough without the customaryinstru-
mental break.Strangelyenough the albumlabel creditsthe variantto a Lambson
and Johnson;I havenot found anysong folio text. Cashhas neverre-recordedthis
song (as he has manyotherearlysongs on Sun for Columbia),and I have never
heard him perform it. His good friend, the late JohnnyHorton, recordedthis
samevariantin an albumentitledJohnnyHorton-I Can'tForget You (Colum-
bia CS-9o99). There it is entitled "Out in New Mexico,"attributedto Horton
himself and publishedby Sesac.It seemslikelythatone learnedthe song fromthe
other.
With Cash'smove to Columbiain 1958 camean increasedrecordingof tradi-
tional songs. Severaltraditionalgospel songs were included in two albumsof
"hymns"releasedin 1959 and 1961. "I Got Stripes"was recordedin 1959 and
issued both as a single and in an album. It is a song that Cash still sings fre-
quently,undoubtedlybecauseit fits into that categoryof prisonsongs he so favors
-it appearson his JohnnyCashat FolsomPrison."I Got Stripes"is a reworking
of the traditionalchain gang song found in southernprison camps.It is copy-
rightedwith the following information:"New wordsand musicby JohnnyCash
and CharlieWilliams. Basedon a song collected,adapted,and arrangedby John
A. andAlan Lomax."The sourcewasprobablythe Lomaxes'OurSingingCountry
wherethe song appearedas "Lord,It's All, Almost Gone." Leadbellyalso sings
a version as "On a Monday."8In both "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got
Stripes"considerablechangeshave been made by Cashin the lyrics,but they are
entirelyin tenor with the spirit of the assumedsources.Also in 1959 the Civil

7Huddie Ledbetter, Leadbelly: A Collection of World-Famous Songs by Huddie Ledbetter, ed.


John A. and Alan Lomax (New York, I959), 74-75; recorded on Leadbelly Memorial, vol. i, Stin-
son SLP-17.
8 Cash, 138; John and Alan Lomax, Our Singing Country (New York, 1949), 386-388; recorded
on Leadbelly Memorial, vol. i.
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 313
War song "Lorena"appearedon an extended-play45 rpm with "wordsand ar-
rangementby CharlesWilliams"; only the first stanzaseems traditional."Cash
still sings it. Under the deceptivetitle "I Want to Go Home" Cash recordeda
versionof "The Sloop John B." (alternately"The John B. Sails"). While again
copyrightinformationindicatesall wordsand musicby JohnnyCash,this version
is quite similarto CarlSandburg'sin The AmericanSongbag (pp. 22-23). This
Bahamiansong is not a type usually associatedwith Cash; the recordingeven
employsbongos. One wondersjust how it cameto his attention.The traditional
"My Grandfather'sClock"as "adaptedand arrangedby JohnnyCash"was also
recordedin 1959, eventuallyappearingon the samealbumSongs of OurSoil, as
"I Want to Go Home." "Goingto Memphis"of the sameyearrepresentsCash's
collationof convictworksong materialcollectedby the Lomaxes.Like "TheRock
Island Line" and his own prison songs this song has remainedin Cash'sactive
repertoryand forms an essentialpart of what we could call his esthetic.A song
entitled "TransfusionBlues" (later "CocaineBlues" in its recordingin Johnny
Cashat FolsomPrison) appearedin 1960 on Now There Was a Song. As D. K.
Wilgus has noted, this "blues"is relatedto the traditional"BadLee Brown" (or
"Little Sadie," Laws 18), although on the first album label it is attributedto
R. Hogsheadand then on both the later album label and in a song folio to one
T. J. Red Arnall.o0"Delia'sGone" of 1962 is a version "adaptedand arranged
by JohnnyCash"of Laws15. "In Them Old CottonfieldsBackHome" was also
recordedin 1962. But it was only with the albumBlood, Sweat,and Tearsof the
same year that Cashwas able to put togethera programunited largelythrough
the use of traditionalmaterialor adaptations.With June Carter,Cash collated
variouselements (lines, phrases,stanzas) from versionsof "JohnHenry" (Laws
II) with originaladditionsto form the cantefable"The Legendof John Henry's
Hammer."A magnificenteight-minutepiece in which Cashuses two short steel
barsto punctuatethe rhythm,this song has remaineda featureof manyof his live
performancesthrough the years. At the same time he recordedMerle Travis'
"Nine Pound Hammer,"itself an amalgamof traditionalverses;"Tell Him I'm
Gone," an adaptationby Cashof "TakeThis Hammer";"CaseyJones" (Laws
GI); and "AnotherMan Done Gone,"which is identifiedon the recordlabel as
consistingof new materialby RubyPickensbut collected,adapted,and arranged
by Vera Hall, John Lomax, and Alan Lomaxwith additionalmaterialby John
Cash. Cash performsthis prison song unaccompanied,with antiphonallines by
Anita Carter.
In detailingthese earlyrecordingsof traditionalsongs with theirvariouscopy-
right purposes,I have tried to indicatethat Cash from the startof his careerin

9 Reference to John Smith's discography will provide single record and album release numbers
for all material. Throughout this paper in indicating composer credits for songs I rely on informa-
tion supplied on record labels, album jackets, and in the following song folios: I Walk the Line and
Other Johnny Cash Hits (New York, 1970); Johnny Cash Songs and Picture Folio, No. 1
(New York, 1959); Johnny Cash Song and Picture Folio, No. 2 (New York, 960o); Johnny Cash
at Folsom Prison (New York, 1969); Johnny Cash: Hymns from the Heart (New York, 1962);
Johnny Cash Motion Picture Songs (New York, 1970); Johnny Cash Show Souvenir Picture and
Song Book (Los Angeles, n. d.); Hello, I'm Johnny Cash (Miami, 1970); and Songs of Johnny
Cash. I have found some contradictions in credits; there may be inaccuracies still in my attributions,
but I have tried to cross-check as much as possible.
10 D. K.
Wilgus, "Record Reviews," JOURNAL OF AMERICAN FOLKLORE, 83 (1970), 99.
314 FREDERICKE. DANKER
the mid 1950s was a transmitterand creativeadapterof folk material.In fact,his
own ballad "Give My Love to Rose" from as earlyas 1957 seemsclearlybased,
becauseof its lyrics,on the traditional"Give My Love to Nell" (also known as
"Jackand Joe"), even if the musicis quite different.Cashrecaststhe balladas a
first-personnarrativeabout a man (the "I") who finds by the railroadtracksa
nearlydead ex-convictwho servedten yearsin Friscoand then receivesthe con-
vict's final words to give his money and love to his son and his wife, Rose. The
originalballadconcernstwo friends, Jackand Joe, who sail "acrossthe foam" to
seek their fortune.Jackmakesit first and sails for home, takingJoe's words of
love to Nell. But, when Joe finallydoes returnhome, he findsthat Jackhas done
morethanconveya messageof love-he has marriedthe girl himself.Joe forgives
the blackguard.Usually appearingwith three main narrativestanzas (double)
and a long chorusthat concludes"Don't forget to give my love to Nell" (com-
pare Cash's"Don't forget to give my love to Rose" in the same position), the
song has been widely collectedin the United States,including the Ozarksand
Texas." Cash's rewriting (while reducing the main narrativeto two double
stanzas) is tragicand starkernot only in its contemporary setting but also in the
generally narrower range of the vocal line and its repetitivenote melody.The par-
ticularqualitythat Cashgives to the song is made evident fully only when heard
on the variousrecordingshe has madeof it. The originalSun single employsjust
the TennesseeTwo and a chorusthat alternatelyhums and backs Cash on the
choruswith the lyrics;sung slowly with a subduedelectricguitaraccompaniment
(even the instrumentalbreakis just a phrase) the narrativecomesacrossin all its
starkness.His firstre-recordingfor Columbiaon I Walkthe Line is shorter(2:20
vs. the original 2:44), althoughall the lyricsare included.It is performedat a
pace that seems hurried and not too deeply felt. Without the chorus,just the
TennesseeThree (W. S. Holland on drumsbeing the new member) accompany
Cash. But it is the final recordingof the song in JohnnyCashat Folsom Prison
that in its own way echoesthe firstrecording;the paceis aboutthe sameand the
TennesseeThree accompany,but the acousticsof the prison recreationhall and
Cash'sraspy,almostbroken,voice againstthe slowly moving electricguitarand
electricbasshelp conveythe neardespairof the song. I havetakenthe time in the
caseof this song to discusssomemusicalaspectsbecauseI thinkthattheyareoften
an essentialaspectof examiningthe role of the individualsingerand his altering
of traditionalmaterials.
Since the earlyyearsCashhas continuedto expandhis traditionalrepertoryby
recordingsuch songs as "Sam Hall" (Laws L5), "BuryMe Not on the Lone
Prairie"(Laws B2), "'SweetBetsy from Pike" (Laws B9), "The Streetsof La-
redo" (LawsBI), "I Ride an Old Paint" (Cashalso adaptedthis song in a variant
entitled "SlowRider"for his earlyalbumof i96o, Ride This Train), "TheWa-
bashCannonball,"and "TheOrangeBlossomSpecial"(a fiddletuneattributedto
ErvinRousewhom Cashmet in Floridaand to whom he paystributein the liner
notesto OrangeBlossomSpecial,althoughone wondershow muchof the dialogue

11 Representative texts in standard collections, such as Randolph, IV, 336; Brown, II, 635-638

(lyrics), and IV, 307-308 (music); Owen, Texas Folksongs, 199-201. A recording by Roy Acuff
is available on Roy Acuff Sings American Folksongs (Hickory LPM-II5). Almeda Riddle also has
it in her repertory as reported by Abrahams, A Singer and Her Songs, 189.
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 315
in the song is Cash'sratherthan Rouse's). Most interestingof these morerecent
traditionalitems in his repertoryis "MisterGarfield."As Cash indicatesin his
extensivenotesfor the album,Balladsof the True West,he learnedthe song from
Jack Elliott under the title "The Ballad of CharlesGuiteau" (Laws E I) but
wrotemost of the dialoguehimself, thus transformingit into a cantefable,a form
Cash favors. D. K. Wilgus assumesthat JackElliott learnedthe song from the
recordingof BascomLamarLunsfield.12Simplyin numbersthesetraditionalitems
do not dominateCash'srepertory;yet many of them remaincurrentin his live
performancerepertory.He also revealsan awarenessof the folksongcollectionsof
Sandburg,the Lomaxes,Botkin,Dobie, and others (all mentionedin his notes to
the doublealbumof cowboyand westernsongs referredto above) as well as the
influenceof Tex Ritteras a singerof traditionalmaterial.
BALLADS. For purposesof simplicityI use the term "ballad"for any song pri-
marilynarrative.Alternativeterms,suchas "narrativesong"or "storysong,"used
to distinguishforms variantfrom traditionalballadsseem to me less than useful
for this repertorystudy.
Cash'srepertoryincludesroughlyfifty-oddsongs I would classify as ballads.
Manyof these aretraditionalballadsor adaptationsas discussedabove;othersare
of his own composition;and perhapsthe largestnumberare in the subtypefre-
quently called "sagasongs." The saga song is a narrativeabout some event or
prominentperson in the past, sometimeshistoricallyaccuratebut often an em-
broideringon fact to highlight the heroicsor emphasizea theme. The songtype
becamea countrymusicfavoritein the late 1950s and early196os in the handsof
suchsingersas JohnnyHortonand StonewallJacksonand perhapsat its bestwith
MartyRobbins'seriesof sagasongsof the cowboyandthe West. Unlike the event
balladsof countryand folk music of the 1920s and 1930s (and recentlyin the
eventballadsof a singer-songwriter like Tom T. Hall), basedon disastersof vari-
ous sorts, the saga song has a tendencyto blend narrativeand lyric elements,to
be sentimentalor melodramatic,to emphasizerefrainsat the expenseof narrative
stanzas,and to be recordedwith humming and chantingchoruses,heavy drum
beats, and in a generallystridentmanner.JohnnyHorton's"The Battle of New
Orleans,""Sink the Bismark,""JohnnyReb," "The Battle of Bull Run," and
"Springtimein Alaska"are typical,althoughMartyRobbins'sagasongs are gen-
erally quieterand more orientedtowardnarrative.Like the event ballads,these
saga songs are in the broadsidetraditionin termsof both communications context
(records,sheetmusic) andesthetic.
Cashhas recordeda numberof theseballads,even if few of themhavebecome
a permanentpartof his repertory.Manywere releasedas singles and not reissued
in albumsuntil Columbiastartedto pourout Cashalbumsin the late sixties,coin-
cidingwith Cash'snationalpopularityon television.Possiblythe mostenduringof
these saga songs are "Rememberthe Alamo" (Jane Bowers), "The Long Black
Veil" (a song in the repertoriesof many singers), "The Ballad of Boot Hill"
(Carl Perkins), and Cash'sown "Dorraineof Ponchartrain," "HankandJoe and
Me," "Clementine,""LocomotiveMan,"and "Girlin Saskatoon"(with Horton).
Most arerecordedwith a chorus,prominentdrums,and echochamber,andwith a
sort of shoutingsinging style. Cash'sown "The Big Battle"--a Civil War saga
12
Wilgus, "Record Reviews."
316 FREDERICK
E. DANKER

song recordedwith banjo, snare drum, and strings-is occasionallyperformed


live. "The Rebel-Johnny Yuma" (Markowitz-Fenady)is still sung, too. In all,
some twenty-nineitems of Cash'sballadrepertorycould be put into this category,
makingthem the largestsingle subtype.Yet their low percentageof retentionin
his activerepertorysuggeststhat all but the few of his own composinghave had
little attractionfor him after the initial recording.Severalfactors explain this
situation.In the firstplace,manyof these songs were recordedwith an amplified
banddifficultto carryon tour.In conjunctionwith Cash'sstresson a simplethree-
piece band,this factormade the performanceof the grandiloquentstudiorecord-
ings difficultbefore a live audience,especiallysince much of the effectivenessof
thesesagasongs residedin the "atmosphere" createdby trumpets,banjos,strings,
drums, and chanting choruses. Also, Cash has turnedincreasinglyto traditional
in
material recentyears.Perhaps he has felt that these saga songs are in many
casesoverblownand artificial.
If we leave aside the traditionalballadsand the saga songs, we find a handful
of recentlycomposedballadsthatCashseemsparticularlysuitedto. JimmieRodg-
ers' "In the JailhouseNow" is an example. Cash composeda ballad entitled
"HardinWouldn't Run" basedclosely, so Cashsays (see notes to Balladsof the
TrueWest), on Hardin'sautobiography. Sungwith a simpleguitaraccompaniment
in a traditionalobjectivestyle, the balladresemblessome less melodramaticsaga
songs,for instance,"HankandJoeandMe." SomeCashballads,suchas "TheMan
on the Hill" or "FiveFeet High andRising,"detailthe life of sharecroppers(the
formerthe relationbetweenlandworkerand landlord,the latterthe Cashfamily's
own misfortunesat the time of the 1937 Mississippiflood). "Give My Love to
Rose," "AustinPrison,""The Walls of a Prison,""StarkvilleCity Jail" (all by
Cash,the last basedon personalexperience), and HarlanHoward's"The Wall"
are obviouslypart of Cash'sprison song repertory.Balladson the AmericanIn-
dian, particularlythose by Peter La Farge, are an importantand active part of
Cash'srepertory:"TheBalladof Ira Hays,""As Long as the GrassShallGrow,"
and "She Came from the Mountains"(closer to lyric song). Cash'sown "Big
Foot" saga song was on the sound trackof the Barrons'television documentary
Cash!,but it has not been recordedto my knowledge.Unlike the brashersaga
songsof the late 1950s, this balladhasthe starksimplicityof the bestof the ballads
concernedwith prison life, sharecroppers, and the Indian.We should not forget
thatone of the mostfrequentlysungof Cash'ssongsis his own "BigRiver,"essen-
tially a blues ballad. Cash'sbilling as "America'sSinging StoryTeller" at his
CarnegieHall concertin 1962 was morethanjusta publicityploy;in bothhis bal-
lad andhis folk andcountrylyricsong repertoriesCashtriesto presenta panorama
of segmentsof Americanlife. Two aspectsof his work tend to corroboratethis
tendency.First, he has put togetherseveralalbumsunified arounda theme and
combining ballads and lyric songs to portrayAmericanareas or occupations.
Second, the "Ride This Train" segment of his television show (based by the way
on one of these albums) united narrative, song, and film to do the same thing. In
addition, Cash's predilection for the cantefable form suggests his concern for pre-
senting many details within the compass of a song (borne out by the increasing
use of the cantefable form in the "Ride This Train" television segments to the
point where we have basically extended narrations on such topics as lumberjack-
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 317
ing, sharecropping,railroading,farming,the AmericanIndian,andso forthinter-
spersedwith songs). Indeed, Cashis the only moderncountrysinger to use the
ballad so extensivelyand to work out extendedperformancesegmentsrelatedto
folk culturein recentyears.
HEARTSONGS/BLUESSONGS. The problemof song type categorizationis par-
ticularlyacutewhen one is dealingwith the countrylove song, whetherthe forlorn
lover sort or the celebration-of-lovetype. The term "heartsong"has long been
used among countrysingers to refer to both. Indeed the term seems to reach
backto the nineteenth-century, white, sentimentalpopularsong, often referredto
as the parlorsong. I use the termreluctantlyand equivocatein my headingabove
by placingthe term "bluessong" alongside.What I sense hereis the impassecre-
ated by our conventionaldescriptionsof blues modeled either on blackblues or
on the type of white bluescloselypatternedon the blackmodel (such as those of
JimmieRodgersor Cliff Carlisle). The problemis muchthe samewhen we speak
of rhythm-and-blues or soul songs not in the conventionalthree-line,twelve-bar
bluesform. In bothwhite and blackcountrymusicthe classicbluesform and song
have tended to disappearsince 1940 as both musics became more urbanized
(Nashville, Chicago). In the case of white countrymusic the repertoryof senti-
mentalparlorsongs, imitationsof suchsongs, and indigenousfolk love lyricswas
there to startwith. They have been transformedfrom sentimental"heartsongs"
into a typeof bluesmarkedby "bluesy"instrumentation(electricand steel guitar,
fiddle, sometimesa piano) employing"bluenotes"and an ornamentalvocalstyle
with an overall intensity of vocalizing and accompaniment(analogous to the
Chicagoblues band style), often up-tempowith a walking bass that can only
strikea whitecountryaudienceas whiteblues.
Johnny Cashhas recordedsome ninety blues songs in additionto a varietyof
joyful heartsongs.Most of his own bluessongs as well as his recordingof others'
stem from the Sun Recordsperiod (1955-1958). Accompaniedusuallyby only
the TennesseeTwo, but sometimeswith an addedpiano and chorus,these
early
songs are distinctivecontributionsto the song type. The distinctivefeaturesof
Cash'ssinging style-his low baritone,his employmentof a narrowvocal
range
and repeatednotes,a speech-songstyle, a placingof the voice to the front
against
generallylow instrumentaltones, and a waveringpitch and tonality (off-key)--
sketchout an approachto blues song not unlike thatof ErnestTubband
Jimmie
Skinner.In contrastto the high lonesomesoundcharacteristic of manyhonky-tonk
singers,this style is morerelaxed (a variantTexas-Deltastyle?) yet still stark.Of
course,much of the particularsound of Cash'searly recordingsbears the Sun
Recordsimpress,blendingwhite and blackstyles;Cash'sfirstalbumrefersto his
"hot and blue guitar," a recognitionof LutherPerkins'
unique bluesy electric
guitar work, which serves as a foundationfor Cash'sdelivery. "FolsomPrison
Blues"is one of the most successfulof these earlyblues songs. But
amongCash's
own compositionsare "BlueTrain,""BigRiver"(blues ballad), "Cry,Cry,Cry,"
"Next in Line," "Don't MakeMe Go," "Trainof Love," "ThereYou Go," "So
Doggone Lonesome,""Port of Lonely Hearts," and "Mean-EyedCat." With
Glen Douglasand L. McAlpin,Cashwrote"Homeof the Blues,"one of his most
compellingand darkblues songs. Cashalso recordedseveralof Hank Williams'
blues: on the initial Sun album"I HeardthatLonesomeWhistle Blow" and later
318 FREDERICK E. DANKER

"I Can'tHelp It," "I CouldNever Be Ashamedof You" and a haunting"You


Win Again"with pianoaddedto the TennesseeTwo. He recordedthe bluessongs
of otherSun artists,such as CharlieRich, Roy Orbison,and songwriter-producer
JackClement.At Columbiaafter 1958 more of his own blues songs were taken
down: "All Over Again," "What Do I Care,""That'sAll Over," "I Still Miss
Someone,"and "UnderstandYourMan"areamongthe mostnotable.He has con-
tinuedto recordand sing live blues songs, includingcountrystandardsand Bob
Dylan's effortsin this vein ("It Ain't Me Babe," "Don't Think Twice, It's All
Right," "Mama,You Been on my Mind"). Two of the most memorablerecent
examplesare "SeeRubyFall" (Cash-Orbison)and "SanQuentin"(Cash).
FOLKAND FOLK-COUNTRYLYRIC.Included in this song type are traditional
lyric songs and those lyric songs composedby Cash himself and other country
songwritersthat I am calling "folk-country"since they are songs specifically
focusing on occupationsand themes commonin folksongs. This categoryis one
which illuminesmore than any otherthe folk orientationof Cash'srepertory.By
subdividingthe songs into severalareasa dearer pictureof the basicfocuses of
Cashas a singerwill emerge.Muchof the traditionalmaterialas well as recently
composedballadsdiscussedin this articlealreadyfit underthese headings;where
usefulto the discussiontheywill be referredto.
Railroadand trainsongs. Cashhas mademuchof the trainas artifactand sym-
bol throughouthis career.There is nothing surprisingaboutthis habit,exceptto
thosewho havegrownup in a worldwheretrainsareof less significancethanthey
were one hundred,thirty,or even twentyyearsago. The railroadand relatedtrain
song has alwaysbeen a stapleof countrymusic.JimmieRodgers,of course,was a
railroadman, learnedmany of his songs while employedas one, and helped to
popularizerailroadsongs and train blues songs. The train song is unconcerned
with detailsof railroading,using the trainitself as symbolof loneliness,escape,
or loss in a bluesvein. In moderncountrymusicHankSnowhascontinuedthe tra-
dition, one of his most popularitemsbeing his own trainbluessong "I'mMovin'
On." Cashwas influencedby Snow from his youthin Arkansas,but he also grew
up in the Delta areaduringthe Depressionnear railroads;they were part of the
lifeline of the areaand bore some auraof romance.The image of the lonesome,
wanderingman hopping freights to move on to anothertown comes out of the
southernblackblues tradition,entersinto the workof Hank Williams, relatesto
Depressionhobo and poor white, and is a deep partof the folk estheticsurfacing
in Cash'sworkas well as in MerleHaggard's.Cash's"GiveMy Loveto Rose"can
be takenas a prisonor a trainsong, as can "FolsomPrisonBlues"with its picture
of the convict'shope of getting on a train to escapeprisonmisery.Although in
sheer numbersno more than a dozen songs that Cashsings fit into this category,
theyareamongthosemostoften performed.
For the folkloristnothingcan be moreuseful thanexaminingthe layoutgraph-
ics and contents of two of Cash's early albums revolving around the railroad: All
Aboard the Blue Train, released in 1962 although a reissue of early singles, and
Ride This Train, released in 1960 and subtitled "A Stirring Travelogue of Amer-
ica in Song and Story." The Sun album includes "Blue Train," "There You Go,"
"Train of Love," "Goodbye Little Darling," "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle,"
"Come In Stranger," "Rock Island Line," "Give My Love to Rose," "Hey, Por-
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 319

ter," "FolsomPrison Blues," "The Wreck of the Old 97," and "So Doggone
Lonesome."Eight of the twelve songs are by Cash.The cover featuresa photo-
graph of Cash leaning against a pillar dressedin a subdued"Western"outfit:
brown jacket,stripedblacktrousers,gunbelt,wide-brimmedhat. He is rolling a
cigarette,looking dour,and sproutinga couple-of-days'growthof beard.A steam
locomotiveis directlybehindhim. The albumnotes indicatethat "loyalfans and
followers" asked for an album of "trainand relatedsongs." The album is en-
tirely appropriate;blues songs predominate,some in the train blues category
("Blue Train," "Trainof Love," "I Heard that LonesomeWhistle," "Folsom
Prison Blues," and "Give My Love to Rose" [the last two only tangentially]).
Othersare blues songs aboutleaving a loved one or returninghome and have no
train references:"ThereYou Go," "GoodbyeLittle Darling," "ComeIn Stran-
ger," "So Doggone Lonesome.""Hey, Porter"is a Cash lyric about returning
hometo the Southon a train.Both "RockIslandLine" (more lyricthannarrative)
and "The Wreckof the Old 97" are traditionalrailroadsongs. For the folklorist
this albumconstitutesprimeevidenceof the importanceof commerciallyreleased
countrymusicin comingto termswith the continuumof folk and countrymusic.
No folkloristput the albumtogether:nor did Cash. Sun Records'management
took what they had of Cash'sspecificrailroadand train songs and filled out the
needed twelve bands with other Cash songs. They sensed the relationof these
non-railroadsongs to the others,for all the songs do makea unifiedimpression;
as an artifactthe albumin some measureexpressesan esthetic.Interestingly,the
notes speakof "nostalgicsentiments,"the "magicof our heritage,"the "greatro-
mantictraditionof the earlyera of the train,"and "thisromanticage of the 'big
blackwheel'."The contentstell us somethingquitedifferent.
On the otherhand, the Columbiaalbumis not a collectionof railroador train
songs; the sounds of trains are in the backgroundas Cash narratesa tour of
America with adapted traditionalsongs and folk-countrylyric songs used to
exemplify occupationsand aspectsof the Americanlandscape.This albumlater
servedas the impetusfor Cash'sexpandedversionof the narrativesong form in
his televisionshow and indicatesmuchof the directionof his workin recentyears.
The dominanceof blues songs on the Sun album (several of the songs ap-
peared on his first Sun album in 1957) suggests the communalityof blues,
trainblues, and manyrailroadsongs in Cash'srepertory.Somethingmorethan a
romanticauraor nostalgiapervadesthese songs. All echo the lonelinessand root-
lessnessof manon the land, the hardshipsand disastersbothpersonaland occupa-
tional comingto the Americanforging a nationand who finds his place in it less
than secure.Cash'sdominantlystarksinging style with its semi-monotonemove-
ment over a narrowscalealwayscomplementedby the equallystark,deep instru-
mental accompanimentbringsan auraof despairto these songs-as it does, for
instance,to his earlyrecordingof the traditional"New Mexico,"anothersong of
losers.Etchedout with somepain from a felt life, this style makesa unityof im-
pression for a variety of songs. For, in a metaphorical sense, we are all aboard
the Blue Train in the Sun album; it becomes the broken dream train of the
imagination.
Sharecropper songs. Songs of this type have assumed greater prominence as
Cash has started to speak more openly on stage and television about his poor
320 FREDERICK E. DANKER

childhood in the Delta. Eleven lyric songs on cotton-farminglife are in the


repertory,as well as three ballads.The most popularis Cash'sown balladof the
1937 Mississippiflood, "Five Feet High and Rising,"a simple tale of the cotton
farmerhaving to vacatehis home and catch a train as the waters rise. Another
sharecropper balladis "TheMan on the Hill," mentionedabove.The thirdballad
is "The Frozen Four-Hundred-Pound Fair-to-Middlin'CottonPicker,"a narra-
tive resembling"The FrozenLogger"and a paeanto a greatcottonpickerwho
froze to death in the processof picking over four hundredpounds in one day.
Among lyric songs "Pick a Bale of Cotton,"although copyrightedas by John
Cash,is a traditionalworksong in a jumpsong vein popularizedby Leadbellyand
appearingin various Lomax collections."CottonPickin' Hands" by Cash and
June Carterdetailsthe hardshipsof this life and the love of a woman. "Pickin'
Time"is also by Cashand a favoritein live performance;herethe preacherunder-
standsthe off-seasonhardtimesof sharecroppers and agreesto wait until "pickin'
time" to pass the collectionplate. "In Them Old CottonfieldsBack Home" is a
traditionalitem. HarlanHoward's"MississippiDelta Land"is a recentnostalgic
song firstintroducedon the Cashtelevisionshow as partof a "RideThis Train"
segment depictingDelta life. "BossJack"by Tex Ritteris done in a cantefable
mannerbut is essentiallya lyric vignetteaboutnineteenth-century cottonpicking.
HarlanHoward's"Busted"is a down-and-outer's song that includesreferenceto
cottonpicking. CarlPerkins'recent"DaddySangBass"is a semi-religiouspiece,
but it is basicallyanothervignette about black-landfarming. Three other lyric
songs on sharecroppinglife enteredCash'srepertoryin April 1970 throughtheir
performanceon his televisionshow: "PoorWhite Trash"in a talkingbluesform,
"BlackWind Arisin',"and "CaliforniaCottonFields," the lattertwo incorpor-
ated into a "Ride This Train" segment depicting sharecroppingand the Dust
Bowl thirties.Whetheranyof thesesongsarebyCashI do not know.
Prison songs. Fifteen lyric songs and six balladscomprisethis class of songs,
dominantin the repertoryfrom the start. The earliest Sun album included "I
Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow," "Folsom Prison Blues," and Jimmie
Skinner's"Doin'My Time."The six balladsincludefourby Cash:"TheWalls of
a Prison" (set to the "UnfortunateRake/Streetsof Laredo"tune), "Give My
Loveto Rose,""AustinPrison,"and "StarkvilleCityJail."Two areby othersong-
writers:"TheWall" (HarlanHoward) and "Loston the Desert" (Mize-Fraser),
the latterbeing a tale of an escapedconvict.The qualityand the rangeof these
balladsand lyric songs are remarkable,as is the frequencyof their retentionin
activerepertory.For the folklorist,too, the white prisonsong is of specialinterest
since they have been the subjectof little study. As noted earlierCash's "I Got
Stripes,""Tell Him I'm Gone," and "Going to Memphis"are adaptationsof
traditionalmaterial,as is "AnotherMan Done Gone." The recordingsof these
items are unusualalso. In "Tell Him I'm Gone" steel bars (similarin sound to
those used in "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" found in the same album,
Blood, Sweat, and Tears) are added to the usual Cash backup sound, and in "Go-
ing to Memphis" the sound of hoes is heard and a chorus serves as the work
gang behind Cash's voice; the song itself is cast in the cantefable mode with Cash
establishing a first-person viewpoint. Harlan Howard's "Chain Gang" appears
on this album, recorded with its emphatic rhythms reinforced by steel bars, a
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 321

chorus,and acousticguitarruns.One of Cash'sown prisonssongs, "Senda Picture


of Mother,"althoughappearingonly on a single and on the FolsomPrisonalbum,
is one of his best lyricsand most interestingrecordings:the new CarterFamily
(MotherMaybelleand her daughters,June, Anita, and Helen) add background
reinforcementto phrasesat line-ends, a piano adds depth and a "honky-tonk"
feel, and a moving autoharpsolo is featuredon the breakbetweenstanzas(prob-
ablyby MotherMaybelle).
For a telling example of Cash'sway with prison songs, I would recommend
comparinghis recordingof "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now" (Herscher-
Klein, availableon The Sound of JohnnyCash) to JimmieRodgers'(reissuedon
Country Music Hall of Fame) recorded on May 17, 1933. Rodgers' version of
what is essentiallya blues balladincludesfive four-linestanzas,with the title as
fifth-line refrain,three yodel obbligatos,and two guitarbreaks(by Rodgersand
his only accompaniment).The song lasts exactlythree minutes.Rodgers'light
tenoris more relaxedthan Cash'sbaritone,lending the song a retrospectivequal-
ity, of bad times gone by. Cash'sversionconsistsof four stanzas(with some re-
arrangementof lines) with one instrumentalbreakfor the TennesseeThree;it
lasts one minute, forty-threeseconds. The driving, incessantlypounding, and
sharplyrecordedsound of electricguitar,string bass, and drumsbackingCash's
voice (at its deepeston the refrain) lends a starknessand harrowingaurathat
qualifiesthe senseof freedomcelebrated.Takenwith his two prisonalbumsdone
at Folsomand SanQuentinand the stunningrawpowerof Glen Sherley'sequally
brilliantalbumof prisonsongson Mega,we haveperhapsthe finestachievements
in modern countrymusic in artisticterms. Glimpses into darknessand despair
lived through, these songs and recordingsreveal much of Cash'sesthetic in a
large segmentof his repertory.For JohnnyCashthe prison song speaksfor the
prisonof the soul.
Mining songs. Cashhas few mining songs in his repertory;I identifyonly six,
one of which, "CallDaddyfromthe Mine,"is a Cashballad.MerleTravis'"Nine
Pound Hammer"and "Darkas a Dungeon"are partof his activerepertory,both
eminentlysuited for the "hardfacts-of-life"aspectof Cash'srepertoryand con-
ceptuallyrelatedto the prisonsongs. Travis'"SixteenTons"has been performed
on televisionin a segment on mining life. Cash had also recordedearly in his
career (196o) Merle Travis' "Loadin' Coal" for the Ride This Train album.
Prefacedby a spoken descriptionof coal mining in Beech Creek,Kentucky,its
four stanzascharacterize the life of a manwho will alwaysbe "loadin'coal."The
acousticguitarbreaksoundslike the workof Travishimself.
Indian songs. Since most of these songs are balladsor have a narrativecast,
little needs to be addedhere not mentionedabovein my discussionof ballads.I
identifythirteensongs in this area,most of themmakingtheirappearancefor the
firsttime in the 1964 album,BitterTears.The personalcontactbetweenCashand
Peter La Farge stimulated Cash's own interest in the plight of the American Indian
that had been expressed earlier in x959 when he recorded for Columbia his own
protest lyric song, "Old Apache Squaw." Of the eight songs on the album five are
by La Farge: "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow," "Custer," "The Ballad of Ira
Hayes," "Drums," and "White Girl." Although the album is subtitled "Ballads
of the American Indian," songs like "White Girl" and "Custer" are more lyric
322 FREDERICK E. DANKER

and descriptivethan narrative,while "Drums"featuresa catalogueof famous


Indiansand a protestto the white man: "In yourwinning you found shame."In
muchthe samemanner,Cash'sown ballad "ApacheTears"depictsthe torturing
of Indianwomen.Cash's"TalkingLeaves"is in the "recitation"genreof spoken
narrativescommon in countrymusic. Although not prominentin his repertory
until recentyears,thesesongsnow form an importantpartof Cash'srepertoryand
reflecthis commitmentto singing aboutthe neglectedsegmentsof our society,an
interestfurtherrevealedin his role as John Ross of the Cherokeeson the NET
PlayhouseThe Trailof Tearsin 1970.
Cowboysongs. Only one song of the eleven that fall into this categorycan be
termed a lyric song, "I Ride an Old Paint." Cash'stwo-recordalbum entitled
JohnnyCashSings the Balladsof the True West is composedprimarilyof tradi-
tional andnewlycomposedballadson cowboyandWesternlife. MaybelleCarter's
"A Letterfrom Home," HarlanHoward's"The Blizzard,"and PeterLa Farge's
"The Stampede"are typicalof the new materialand belong to the saga song va-
riety of the ballad.Cash'sown "Meanas Hell" is a balladlike these but done in
the cantefablemode. In it a cowpuncherpicturesthe desertas a productof the
devil. On this albumCashsings the traditional"I Ride an Old Paint,"a song he
had earlierin his careeradaptedas "SlowRider."His abidinginterestin this sort
of materialis reflectedin the extensivealbumnotes he wrote for the album.As
with his repertoryof Indiansongs, Cashprefersthe balladoverthe lyricsong, for
the "story"of these folk culturescan be most readilyappreciatedby audiences
aliento theseculturesthroughnarrativemeans.
Miscellaneouslyric songs. Severalminor groupingscan be found amongsome
thirtysongs left over. Threelumberjacksongs seemto have enteredCash'sreper-
tory, only one of which he has so far recorded:Leon Payne's"Lumberjack" on
Ride This Train. Both "TimberMan" and "Paul" (composerunknownto me)
were sung initiallyon the March18, 1970, Cashtelevisionshow. Cashhas never
done muchin the way of singing truck-drivingsongs, a typeincreasinglypopular
in countrymusic over the last twentyyears.For a "Ride This Train"television
segmenthe sang the lyricsongs "Six Days on the Road" (Green-Montgomery),
"ThereAin't No EasyRun" (Dudley-Hall), and "TheSailoron a ConcreteSea"
(Travis). The only song of this type previouslysung seems to be JackElliott's
humorous"A Cup of Coffee"(a sortof talkingblues) found in the noveltysong
albumEverybodyLovesa Nut. Severalitems in the repertoryfall into the recita-
tion genre. Usually a narrativewith a strong descriptivecast, the recitationis a
commontype amongmoderncountrysingersof all kinds. Someof these itemsin
Cash'srepertoryare amorphouspieces introducingsongs or setting backgrounds
for albums,for instance,"The Shifting, WhisperingSands" (V. C. Gilbert-M.
Hadler) in Balladsof the True West or Cash'sown "FromSea to ShiningSea"
closing and openingthe albumof the samename.On the otherhand,Red Foley's
standard"Old Doc Brown"from the Ride This Trainalbumis a coherentnarra-
tive. Cash'sown experiencesin finding Indian arrowheadsin Tennesseeis re-
flectedin "The Flint Arrowhead";the growth of interstatehighwaysis seen in
the memorable"CiscoClifton'sFillin' Station,"one of Cash'sbestoriginalrecita-
tions; and the natureof prison life is depicted in his "Dear Mrs." (Annette-
Cash). Recitationsor extensions of them were often part of the "Ride This
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 323

Train" segmentsof his television show, serving as introductionsand links be-


tween songs or actingas backgroundfor film and still photosof localesdepicted
in the words. Thus, in Cash'shands the traditionalcountrymusic recitationhas
often been transformedinto a meansof telling a storyin combinationwith songs
-indeed often partof the cantefablemode adoptedfor extendednarratives.
Two of Cash'slyric songs describeshrimp fishing: "Put the Sugarto Bed"
(Cash-MaybelleCarter) and "Shrimpin'Sailin'" (Cash), the latter featuring
fishing jargonand Cajunreferences.Riversare the subjectof two songs: "You
Wild Colorado"is a paeanto the river'spower, and "The Whirl and the Suck"
depictsthe dangersfor the pioneersof a bendin the TennesseeRivernearChatta-
nooga. Sheb Wooley's "Roughneck"describesthe hard work entailedin laying
pipe, as does a song Cashsang on his televisionshow on September30, 1970, in
conjunctionwith "Roughneck"and a film of pipe-layingoperations:"Driller"
(composerunknownto me). Again on televisionin a segmentdevotedto rodeo
life, Cashsang on October7, 1970, Ian Tyson's "SomedaySoon" and the song
"Cowpoke" (composer unknown to me). On November i x, 1970, another seg-
ment focused on the Pony Expressand included two new songs so far unre-
cordedand whoseexacttitleswereneverannounced;the refrainin one was "Ride,
Ride, Ride,"and the other "EverWestwardwith the CaliforniaMail." Again the
composersof thesesongsareunknownto me.
Thus, a considerableportionof Cash'srepertory,even excludingballads,fits
into the folk and folk-countrylyric song category.Many are Cashoriginalsand
evince distinguishedtalent in composingvital songs abouta varietyof folk-life
situations.Although the evidence of recordingsand televisionpresentationsof
these songs suggeststhatmanyof them are of recentcomposition,I have triedto
indicateabovehow manyprototypesappearedearlyin Cash'scareer.One also sus-
pectsthatmanyof the originalsongswerewrittenyearsago andneverrecordedor
even presentedlive untilthe televisionformatof "RideThis Train"gave Cashthe
appropriatefreedomfor extendingthis folk-rootedaspectof his work. Actually,
by examiningthe repertoryfrom this perspective-thematic categoriesof lyric
song in conjunctionwith correspondingtraditionalballadsand newly composed
pieces-we can see quite clearlyCash'sfolk roots and much of the continuing
closerelationshipbetweenfolk andcountrysong.
SONGS.Up to the present writing about sixty songs can be placed in
RELIGIOUS
this importantcategory.They range from traditionalsongs to countrystandards
and an impressiveand growingnumberof Cashoriginals.In the yearssinceCash
added the StatlerBrothersand the new CarterFamilyto his troupehe has ex-
pandedhis repertoryof these songs and developedwith these singersan exciting
gospel style in presentingreligious song. The Statlerswere originallya gospel
quartetin the line of those groupscommonin countrymusic,such as the Black-
wood Brothersand the Oak Ridge Boys. The CarterFamilyhas alwaysbeen de-
voted to the singing and recording of gospel song, although more famous among
scholars and recent folksong enthusiasts for their secular repertory.
For Sun Cash recorded "I Was There When It Happened" (Jones-Davis) for
his first album and later (1964) his own religious ballad "Belshazah," but it was
not until he moved to Columbia that he did any extensive recording of religious
material. Among his first Columbia recordings in the summer of 1958 were his
324 FREDERICKE. DANKER
own "It Was Jesus"and "LeadMe, Father."In 1959 and 1961 two albumsof
songs appeared:Hymnsby JohnnyCashand Hymnsfrom the Heart.In 1962 and
1963 Cash recorded"Peacein the Valley" and "Were You There When They
CrucifiedMy Lord" with the new CarterFamily and MotherMaybelleon the
autoharp.Here was the initial phase of the developmentof a gospel song style
approachto religioussong. On "WereYou There"one noticesthe antiphonaluse
of the CarterFamily and the clear, high voice of Anita Carterjuxtaposedto
Cash's.Also in 1963 he recordedhis own religiousrecitation"HereWas a Man"
and sang a few religioussongs along with the lead voices of the Carterson their
albumKeep on the SunnySide. The 1964 "Amen" (Hairston) utilizesboth the
Cartersand the StatlerBrotherswith gospel-stylepiano work and presumably
Cash on the harmonica.Although it was not until mid-1968, after the popular
"breakthrough" occasionedby the phenomenalsuccessof the Folsom Prison al-
bum, thatCashturnedagainto a sustainedeffortin the unusualon-locationalbum
The Holy Land,his live performancesin the period1966-1968 often featuredthe
entire troupein spiritedrenditionsof gospel songs. With the CarterFamilyand
the StatlerBrothersplaced left and right, respectively,with Cash at a central
microphone,their performancesof such songs as "Were You There," "Amen,"
"He Turned the Water into Wine" (Cash), and later "Children,Go Where I
SendThee" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas"werebrilliantexamplesof en-
semblework.While not all of theseensemblepiecesare unrecorded,muchof the
excitementof theirperformancelive cameacrosson Cash'stelevisionshow,which
cameto featurethis type of ensemblesinging as the troupegot used to television
in 1970 and 1971.
MISCELLANEOUSSONG-TYPES(country,contemporary).A large numberof
songs in the repertorycannotfit easilyinto the broad categories used above.Some
of them are worth to
mentioningjust give us a view of the varietyof Cash'sreper-
tory and the variedstrandsenteringcountrymusic today.One quite large group
of songs is composedof those celebration-of-lovesongs usuallyconsideredheart-
songs. Fromthe Sun dayswe have "You'rethe NearestThing to Heaven" (John-
son-Atkins-Cash), "KatyToo" (Clement-Cash), "I Love You Because"(Leon
Payne), "Down the Streetto 301" (Clement), "StraightA's in Love" (Cash),
"You'reMy Baby" (Cash), and "The Ballad of a TeenageQueen" (Clement)
among others. This vein of song continuedinto the early Columbiayearswith
"Drinkto Me" (Cash), "RunSoftly,Blue River"(Cash), "SecondHoneymoon"
(Autry Inman), and then such Cashoriginalsas "You DreamerYou, ""I'llRe-
memberYou," and "You RememberedMe." Since 1965 we can find him record-
ing and singing in live performancesuch songs as "You Beat All I Ever Saw"
(Cash), "You and Tennessee"(Cash), "Happyto Be With You" (June Carter-
Cash-Kilgore), "HappinessIs You" (June Carter-Cash), "Flesh and Blood"
(Cash), and the duets with June Carter,such as "You'll Be All Right" (June
Carter-Cash), John Sebastian's "Darling Companion" and "If I Were a Carpen-
ter," "Shantytown" (June Carter-Cash), "Fast Boat to Sydney" (June, Anita
and Helen Carter), and " 'Cause I Love You" (Cash). It would seem that Cash's
personal happiness with, and marriage to, June Carter is reflected here. A paean
to a happiness possible, this repertory is far removed from the blues songs of the
mid-i950s.
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 325
Another song type that Cash has not entirelyneglected is the novelty song.
Sometimeshumorous,sometimestreatinga situationin an absurdmanner,making
nonsense out of everydaylife, or elevating the trivial into the significant,the
noveltysong in the handsof Cashseemsa releasefor him from the tensionsof the
life on the road. "Get Rhythm,"one of his first Sun recordings,and "Luther
Playedthe Boogie," from the earlyyears,are originals.The 1966 albumEvery-
bodyLovesa Nut broughtmost of these songs together:such songs as JackCle-
ment's"EverybodyLovesa Nut," "The One on the Rightis on the Left" (dilem-
masof a countrybandbesetby the politicalleaningsof its members),and "Dirty
Old Egg-SuckingDog," as well as Cash'sown "PleaseDon't Play 'Red River
Valley' " and J.R. Hall's "TheBug That Triedto Crawlaroundthe World,"ap-
pear occasionallyin live performance.The only one to achieve"hit" statuswas
Shel Silverstein's"A BoyNamedSue."
Two other groups of songs are of some interest: "contemporary" songs and
"minstrel-life"songs. Most prominenthas been Cash'sperformanceof what can
generallybe calledcontemporary songs,thoseby youngcomposersusuallyoutside
the countrymusicscenebut touchingon themesrelevantto it. Cashhas addedthe
Farinas'"Packup Your Sorrows,"Bob Dylan'svariousblues songs, Ian Tyson's
"Red Velvet," Gordon Lightfoot's "For Lovin' Me," and Tom Paxton's "The
LastThing on My Mind"in the last coupleof years.Significantly,manyof these
were featuredon his televisionshowswhereyoungrocksingerswerealsofrequent
guests. Closer to countrymusic traditionsare the songs of Kris Kristofferson.
Cashinitiallybroughthim to wide public attentionand has gone on to perform
suchsongsof his as "To Beatthe Devil," "Help Me MakeIt Throughthe Night"
(duet with June, not recorded), "Me and BobbyMcGee" (not recorded), and
"SundayMorning Coming Down." Obviously,these contemporarysongs could
be groupedunder variouscategories(notablyas heartsongs)given above, but I
feel thattheyarein manycasesin the soft rockvein thatis aliento muchof "hard"
countrysong. Bob Dylan'sblues songsare somewhatan exception.The othersare
framed in less traditionalimageryand melodic patterns.Ironically,if they in
some measureescapewhat somewould call the clichesof countrysongs, they cre-
ate their own. One sensesthat Cashhas been drawnto some of them in line with
his own writing of more positive love songs in recentyears;their more relaxed
and optimisticnote suitshis workwell. Othercountrysingershave been attracted
to this sort of material,and the effortof many in the industryto bridge the gap
betweenthe older countryaudienceand the largerurbanmiddle class has led to
the productionof suchsofterformsof countrymusicoften termed"cosmopolitan
country"or "country-pop." Singerslike MartyRobbins,RayPrice,EddyArnold,
and WaylonJenningshave adaptedtheirstylestowardthese fashions,eschewing
the hardersoundsand directsongs of countrymusicfifteen or twentyyearsago.
Much discussionwithin the countrymusicindustryhas takenplaceover this shift
to lusherrecordingsoundsand rocksongs. JohnnyCashhas not been involvedto
any extent otherthan to acknowledgethe value of the new Nashville songwriters
who have been influencedeither by rock music or by the folk and protestsong
boom of the 1950s and 196os. Cashhas selectedhis songs quite carefully,and in
the caseof Kristofferson's"SundayMorningComingDown" he has pickedup a
song suiting his repertoryperfectly.He has also done some songwritingin the
326 FREDERICK E. DANKER

vein; "Singingin Viet Nam TalkingBlues," "What Is Truth,"


"contemporary"
and "Route #I, Box 144" (a narrative of a young soldier killed in Vietnam)
amplyindicatethis trend. With these songs Cashrevealshimself closerto some-
one like Tom T. Hall whose songs have an earthinessand a grittinesslackingin
muchsoft rocksong. Hall's "MamaBakea Pie, DaddyKill a Chicken"is one of
the finestsongs to comeout of the Vietnamagonyand reflectsthat deepervein of
protestand irony that Cash'ssongs do and that is sadly missing from the more
blatantprotestsongsof the rockschool.
The secondgroup, which I have called "minstrel-life"songs, focuses in vary-
ing degreesof seriousnessand directnesson the life of the countrysingerhimself.
Manyof these could fit into othercategoriesas balladsor noveltysongs, but seen
togetheras reflectionson minstrellife they offersomeperspective-howeverarti-
ficialand contrivedsome of them may seem-on life on the roadand the role of
the singerand his persona.Countrysingersfrequentlyhave a song or two of this
type in theirrepertories-witnessHank Snow's"I'veBeen Everywhere"(Mack)
and Merle Haggard'sown "I'veDone It All." The modernminstrel-lifesong re-
minds one of the Anglo-Saxonpoems "Widsith"and "Deor'sLament,"which
seem to cataloguethe storiesin the bard'srepertoryas well as the personalfor-
tunesof the singer.
Alreadymentionedhave been Cash'sown "LutherPlayed the Boogie," Shel
Silverstein's"TheOne on the Right is on the Left," and Kristofferson's"To Beat
the Devil." The last song is perhapsthe most telling, as it depictsthe hardtimes
of a songwriterin Nashville, much in the mannerof Tom T. Hall's "Nashville
Is a GroovyLittleTown" and "Homecoming,"two otherfine minstrel-lifesongs.
In 1958 Cashrecordedtwo of his own songs in this category:"TheTroubadour,"
a somewhatmelodramaticdescriptionof a singerwho has to sing his sorrowsbe-
fore the public, and a ballad "Frankie'sMan Johnny"modeledon "Frankieand
Albert" (13) but transformedinto the storyof a singerwho ogles a redheadin a
clubwherehe is singing,only to haveher slap him and revealthatshe is the sister
of the womanhe has left behind in his travelsas minstrel.The I96o Cashsong
"When PapaPlayedthe Dobro" depictsthe excitementof a young boy over his
father'sdobro playing. "Sing It Pretty, Sue" (Cash) tells of the female singer
who rises in the professionand jilts her boyfriendfor new prospects.In "Long-
Legged GuitarPickingMan" (MarshallGrant), a duet with June Carter,Cash
is barelydisguisedas the subject.More recently,Cash's"AnotherSong to Sing"
and "Manin Black"ratherpoignantlycharacterize the role of the countrysinger.
"Manin Black"is the mostpointedpersonallyand is in effecta catalogueof those
ills thatdriveCashto composeandsing.
This studyof Cash'srepertoryhas tried to be reasonablycomprehensivewhile
focusingin placeson importantsegmentsand particularsongs. More needs to be
done in studyingthe degreeto which a singer'sestheticor proclivities-and not
just those of record producers-are reflected in albums organized thematically,
the "concept" album in the parlance of the music business. Cash's recent songs
for films add another dimension to his work; the interrelationship of the aural,
visual, and narrative means in a film makes this study unusually challenging.
Certainly, his songs for Little Fauss and Big Halsy and I Walk the Line merit
discussion in terms of the total impact of the films.
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 327

PerformanceStyle
In discussingrepertoryI unavoidablytouchedon mattersof performancestyle.
Now I would like to considerin further detail aspectsof Cash'sperformance
stylein relationto generalmoderncountrymusicstyles.
Cash,like othermoderncountrysingerssince the 195os, has broughtinto his
recordingsextra instrumentsnot part of his basic band: dobro, autoharp,trom-
bones,the mariachitrumpetsound,timpani,bongos,and so forth. Sincethey are
recording-studioadditionsby non-countrymusic orientedproducersor by those
who are consciouslyaping pop music formulas and are not absorbedinto the
interplayof traditionalinstrumentalgroupings,these additionsare inimical to
maintainingcountrymusicas it is. On the otherhand, if their use reflectsinstru-
mentaltraditionswithin a broadrange of folk culturesabsorbedby the artistor
his band (such as western swing, Mexican mariachistyles) and are suitable
then to the song type in emphasizingits folksongorigins,they canbe evidenceof
enculturation.There are further examples of acculturationand enculturation:
Cash'suse of the dobroon severalrecordingsand of the bongos in "I Want to
Go Home";his frequentplayingof the harmonicain recentyears;the use of the
CarterFamilyand the StatlerBrotherson gospel songs, not so much as a chorus
underpinningor "sweetening"his lead vocalbutmoreas antiphonalandalternate
solo voices.In some of the Sun recordingsa chorus(presumablythe Gene Lowry
Singers) was used like an additionalinstrumentto emphasizerhythmsor to
heightenvocalimpactin close-upunisonor tightharmony.
One cannot consider Cash's vocal style apart from his preferencefor the
simplest of string band instrumentalaccompaniment,ornamentedonly by oc-
casionalelectricguitarbreaksor phrases.Evenon recordingshe has avoidedlarge
instrumentalconglomerates,and since 1956 has added just the drummerW. S.
Holland to his original Tennessee Two-Luther Perkins on electric lead and
rhythmguitarand MarshallGranton stringbass (electricbasssinceabout1968).
Bob Wooten took over on electricguitar after Perkins'deathin 1968. This sta-
bilityin personneland soundis highly unusualin countrymusic,consideringthe
vicissitudesof the musicbusiness.It is the sametype of bandPresleystartedwith
and, judging from recordings,resemblesthe backupgroupsfor other Sun artists
in the mid-i950s. W. S. Holland was, in fact, originallythe drummerwith Carl
Perkins'band.Both Cashand Perkinsstartedaboutthe same time in the country
musicfield andworkedfor Sun.Likemanyof the "rockabilly" singerson Sunand
otherlabels in the mid-195os,Cashhas not used the steel guitarto anyextent;it
is rarelyevident except on the album of countrystandards,Now There ITWas a
Song. Cash himself uses the six-stringacoustic
guitar,sometimes switchingoverto
a twelve-string.In recentyearshe has done some picking on the guitar to ac-
companyhis own songs or to add short melodic phrasesin breaks.He has de-
velopedsome facilitywith the harmonica,playinga seriesof smallharmonicasto
some effect on his version of "The Orange Blossom Special." Although I have
never witnessed a piano in his live performances, quite a few of his recordings
employ one. Above the dcloserhythmic work of electric guitar and bass (often
"slapped"), Cash sings in a sort of parlando rubato manner, letting every word
be heard. Luther Perkins' electric guitar breaks were bluesy but simple, most often
328 FREDERICKE. DANKER

working towarddescendingphrasesleading back into Cash'svocal line. Unlike


the band work of other countrysingers,Cash'sband did very little contrapuntal
work;the accompaniment was thereto providereinforcementof the melodicline
and to beat out a steadyrhythm.Although Cash'svocal style resemblesin many
ways that of ErnestTubb and his stresson words the work of Hank Snow (an
admittedinfluence),his banddid not developinto the kind of bandwith virtuosi
soloists that backsTubb, Haggard, Owens, and others. In the last four or five
years,as his repertoryhas includedmorefolk-likesongs and extendednarratives,
the bandworkhas becomemoresubdued.The driving,stridentsoundof the early
yearshas gone to a degree.His voice has becomemore flexibleand expressivein
spite of bouts with throat problems (noticeable even on recordingsfrom the
i96os), its narrowrange,and frequentwaveringpitch. In avoidingmuchof the
cacophonoussound many countrybands have made in recent years, Cash has
demonstratedhis concernfor lyric contentover mind-numbingmassesof sound.
His faith in this understatedstyle was amplyvindicatedwith the FolsomPrison
and SanQuentinsessionswherestudioand soundgimmickrywere absent.
A word needs to be said aboutthe evolutionof Cash'stravelingtroupe,which
has consistedsince the mid-I96os of the TennesseeThree, the four membersof
the new CarterFamily (the originalMotherMaybelleand her three daughters),
the four StatlerBrothers,and since 1968 Carl Perkins.Perkinsbrings a rocka-
billy and countryheartsongrepertoryas well as his brilliantelectricguitarsolo
workto the openingof the show. The CarterFamily,usuallyin secondspot, com-
bines the old and the young in both personnel and repertory.Balancingthe
singing of songs of the first CarterFamilywith newly composedheartsongs-
some by June Carter-they do group singing as a quartetwith MotherMaybelle
on guitaror autoharpand vary it with solo singing by June and Anita or instru-
mental solos by Mother Maybelle. In the mid-x96os June Carteralone was a
memberof the troupeon a regularbasisand did comicsongs,told jokes,and sang
some of her own compositions.Laterwhen her two sistersand MotherMaybelle
joinedshe combinedsolo and groupworkwith them. Eventuallyshe joinedCash
in love song duets,therebylettingthe troupe'srepertoryexpandinto this popular
type of duo. The StatlerBrothersare now the last act before Cash;in the mid-
x96os they sometimesstartedthe show, followed by June, and then Cash. The
Statlershave a variedrepertory,consideringthe fact that they startedas a gospel
group. In their first yearswith Cash they performedsecularheartsongsfor the
most part, having made several successful singles on Columbia. They also
coveredthe countryhit songs of other singersand had a comic routine.Today,
after Cashperformssolo he brings the Cartersand Statlersbackon stage to ac-
companyhim in the stirringgospel songs he now featuresas closing numbers.At
times the two groupsact as hummingbackgroundchorusesor antiphonalvoices
on his secularsongs, but theirmajorsinging role is on the gospel songs in which
individual memberstake solo lines. Perkins often joins the Tennessee Three
duringCash'ssinging as a secondlead guitarand even as a vocal soloist on the
gospel numbers.For all membersof the troupethe TennesseeThreeprovidethe
instrumentalbackup.
This cohesivetroupeand its ensemblesinging work have takenyearsto mold,
and muchof Cash'ssuccessin the last four yearscan be attributedto his welding
THE REPERTORY AND STYLE OF A COUNTRY SINGER 329

together a thoroughlycompatibleand closely knit troupe. The CarterFamily


blends traditionand a country-popstyle, and the Statlerscombinethe appealof
gospel song, humor,youthful enthusiasm,and a relaxedpresenceon stage. The
blending of all parts of the troupe in rousinggospel songs representsthe most
highly sophisticatedensemblework in countrymusictodayand perhapsin all of
Americanfolk and popularmusic.Both CharlesKeil (UrbanBlues) and Roger
Abrahams(Positively Black) have suggested how black blues and soul music
function in the contextof performer,item, and audienceand how performance
style has alteredfrom the solo blues to the ensemblesinging of soul groups.In
severalsensesthe evolutionof the Cashtroupeparallelsthe developmentof the
soul "show" concept where the blues singer's introspectivemanner has been
succeededby the soul singer's more jubilant "conciliatory"manner.Certainly,
the inclusion of female singers in troupes reflectsthe general prominenceof
female singers in countrymusic and on the recordcharts,itself a reflectionof
changingmoresand audiences.Of course,the inclusionof vocal quartetsin road
showsstemsto some degreefrom an attemptto recapturethe soundsproducedin
the recordingstudio. Perhapstoo, an attemptis being made to appeal to those
audiencesusedto the lavishproductionsof televisionmusicshows.
In concluding,I would point out that JohnnyCash continuesto be creative
and innovativein terms of repertoryand performancestyle while adheringto a
folk-basedestheticin great measure.He has bridged some of the gap between
countryand popularmusic throughhis performancestyle and his own person-
ality. He does perform,not just present.Yet his image seems less a public re-
lations job or a persona for success than part of an honest commitmentto
presentinga heritageof folk and folk-derivedmaterial.It would be difficultfor
any performerof his power and range not to be influencedby popularmusic
esthetics;his televisionshow was in manyrespectsa sadexampleof this influence.
What is more importantultimatelyis that he transcendsthese influencesto re-
main the most imposingand creativefigurein countrymusicand a deeplyrooted
folk artist.

BostonStateCollege
Boston,Massachusetts