Wednesday, 30 June 2010

At last - a decent book about Johnny Cash!!

At last I've found an intelligent and critical study of Johnny Cash and his music, after working my way through a fair bit of hagiography and blatant mythologising both by Cash himself and plenty of others. Leigh H. Edwards', Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2009), is different in that its written from a more academic perspective. Edwards is a real country music fan, and big-time Cash fan of course, but she's also a literary critic and applies a whole range of critical apparatus to Cash's work, she looks at issues relating to authenticity in Cash's persona, uses gender analysis, and even postcolonial theory in one chapter. Its not as bad as it sounds!!

The problem with Cash is that there was never a single Cash, he was a complex character who almost revelled in the multiple personae he adopted. Edwards call him a 'walking contradiction', at the same time a social protestor, establishment patriot, drugged wild man, devout Christian crusader, rebel outlaw hillbilly thug and then country music elder statesman. The different chapters in the book look at these contradictory personae in some detail. I won't comment on all of them here, just the one in which I'm most interested, Cash religious persona.

Edwards argues that the 'binaries of saint and sinner, sacred and profane' (p. 158), really runs through Cash's whole life, and that those dichotomies were never really resolved or integrated. In this she's different from many of the simple, and more one-dimensional lives of Cash which attempt to portray him as the redeemed drug addict who through the love of June Carter and a reconnection with his religious roots got his life back on track in the late 1960s. Its that kind of overly-simplified narrative which the Walk the Line film of a few years back runs with.

Edwards has a useful shortish analysis of the role of religion in Southern American culture. On the whole she tried to avoid reductionistic arguments. The traditional interpretation tend to be something along the lines of Evangelical Protestantism being regarded as the religion of the poor and dispossed in the South, and religious language giving the region a common cultural reference point. Edwards prefers to see the relationship between evangelicalism and country music as a little more complex. Evangelicalism's individualism and distrust of religious intermdiaries in favour of a personal and  immediate relationship with God, chimes with certain aspects of the Southern mindset. Cash's stress on his own personal relationship with Jesus, and his distrust of religious institutions - he rarely attended church for any extended period of time - fits neatly with this interpretation.

Edwards discusses Cash's various conversion narratives in some detail, coming back to the point repeatedly that Cash's 'conversion' in the Nickajack Caves was never total - that he wasn't delivered from drug abuse like he has claimed in some of his accounts, although not in the most candid of his autobiographies, Cash (1997).

Cash's film about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road (1973) is also similarly complex and mulit-layered. Cash's Jesus is very much one of his own making - one fighting for the underdog against the political and religious authorities of his day - something Cash thought he was doing through his Man in Black persona, and championing of the rights of Native Americans. In much the same way his novelistic life of the Apostle Paul, The Man in White (1986) presented an idiosyncratic apostle! Cash showed his admiration for the Paul who defied the religious authorities, changing from a persecutor of Christians to Christianity's most passionate advocate, who showed his dedication to Jesus, in spite of extreme suffering. For Cash too, Paul is highly individualistic, who refused to be hemmed in by his society and culture, 'preferring to define himself through his interaction with religion' (p. 180). Again, a Paul almost re-made in Cash's own image!

So Edwards' account of Cash is by far the most sophisticated out there. I'm wondering whether to try John Huss and David Werther's, Johnny Cash and Philosophy: The Burning Ring of Truth (2009) next. It sounds intriguing and is really a book of essays by a variety of philosophers on aspects of Cash's ideas. A quick look at the chapter titles point to esoteric themes like: 'Cash, Kant and the Kingdom of Ends' and 'Johnny Cash: Philosophy as a Way of Life', which sound fascinating, if only on account of their apparent wierdness. There a section in the book on Cash's religious ideas though, so I'll have to take a look.

Anyway, I'm trying to remember that this isn't meant to be a blog dedicated to Johnny Cash - at some point all the reading has to turn into some actual writing!

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