Editor Peter Davis
It is some years ago, and I am sitting in a Portuguese hotel room, idling away the time before dinner with the television on. A music video comes on, and suddenly I am transfixed by the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is not so much the familiar icon as it is the face of the suffering Christ — it is one of my dearest friends, Bob Elfstrom. It was surely that that made me pay more attention to the video and its content. The music was “Hurt,” which I believe was one of Johnny Cash’s last recordings. And the music, the images, the words, the profoundly moving self-portrait of Cash as he surely knew the end of his life was nigh, gripped me with the force of a cameo of King Lear.
Images from Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video: (1) Johnny Cash, (2) Portrait of John and June Carter Cash, (3) Bob Elfstrom as Jesus on the cross, (4) Johnny Cash closes his piano at the end of the video.
If you are not familiar with “Hurt,” I urge you to see the video. Both the words and the music (written by Trent Reznor) are deceptively simple, but Cash’s performance conveys the pain of the loss of friends and loved ones, thoughts of approaching death, and of a form of consolation in Christ. Although I believe it to be art at a very high level, I nevertheless find it unspeakably depressing: a last supreme statement, a taking of leave from this world, a world that is ultimately tragic. I do not watch it lightly, or often. But it was through “Hurt” that I became a Cash convert.
Because — let me admit it early and frankly — I had not been a Cash devotee. Of course, I knew about Johnny Cash, but filed it away in that remote corner of my brain under “Country and Western, Of No Real Interest.” OK, I was ready to admit that country music often had real energy, but I didn’t see any relevance in it for me. In order to show you how that changed — starting with the epiphany of “Hurt” — I need to get back to Bob Elfstrom, where I left him, hanging there on the cross. Or rather a bit earlier, with Bob out in his dinghy off Deer Isle in Maine, when a shout from his cabin that Johnny Cash was on the phone and wanted to talk to him echoed around the bay to the astonishment of nearby fishermen. When Bob picked up the phone, Cash said — and in that measured baritone, it must have sounded like a summons from Jehovah — “Bob, I want you to make a film about Jesus — and I want you to play Christ.”
Now it wasn’t simply that Bob had the typical Semitic appearance… Scandinavian, blond,blue eyes… it wasn’t only that. Nor was it Bob’s terpsichorean accomplishments — after all, Bob had never acted before. No — it was the relationship that Bob had established with Cash in the making of the documentary Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music a few years previously. Bob’s documentary had followed Cash on tour and back to his roots at a time when Cash was close to the first peak of his career, and newly married to the love of his life, June Carter. It is a very warm and intimate portrait and bespeaks of the trust and mutual respect that was established between Bob and his subject, which led Cash to invite Bob to direct his film on Jesus, which became “Gospel Road” (1973). This film was Cash’s expression of his own faith through a musical and visual tribute. And he surely could not have paid a higher compliment to Bob than to ask him to play the personification of the religious core of his life, Jesus.
I had seen Bob’s documentary on Cash when it first came out in 1969 and had paid attention to it as a consummate piece of filmmaking, a prime example of the cinema vérité style that was in its early years at the time and of which Bob Elfstrom became a leading exponent. The music, I was pretty much prejudiced against. All right, I confess: I was a country music snob! It was only almost 40 years later that a kind of accident — with the experience of “Hurt” in my mind — led me to overcome my prejudices. That accident was the acquisition of Bob Elfstrom’s film by a discerning POV, which pulled the film out of obscurity, and dropped it in my lap to shorten by about six minutes for broadcast.
This was immediately a challenge, because the film had been edited by one of the best editors around, Larry Silk. There was no fat — every scene, every image was an essential part of the whole. To indulge in nostalgia, it was made at a time when form and content were indivisible, unlike now, when packaging and embellishment overwhelm in an attempt to conceal filmmakers’ lack of confidence in both their subject and their audience.
Approaching the film with the utmost respect, I cut two music numbers by performers other than Cash and shortened — shaved, rather — a number of scenes. I would like to think I did not do too much damage to the film’s integrity. However, the process of editing, in which I had to listen attentively to every word and run the film dozens of times, made me completely alert to what was going on in the film — the images, the dialogue, the interactions, the music, the lyrics — to such an extent that I emerged from the ordeal a complete Born Again Cash convert.
I was sucked into a world that found its meaning and expression in music. The songs celebrated love, religion, grief and calamity — the gamut, if you like, of life at the Everyman level. The music was at times bursting with energy, at times elegiac, defiant, often humorous, but always rooted in direct human experience. This is how the wellspring of the music comes out in conversation, on the tour bus as it drives through home country:
Carl Perkins: When you come from either side of that river, in that part of the country, you learn to understand most everything. You have to. It’s a grind from the time you get up till you lay down, and there ain’t nothing given to you — you sweat. Somebody in the family sweats for the bread that’s on that plate, right John?
Johnny Cash: Yeah.
Perkins: And it’s usually the whole family it takes to make a living, because it’s cotton, and the people that’s farming the land is not the one that gets the money. Somebody owns it and you get part of it.
As the bus drives through Dyess, Arkansas, where Cash grew up, we see the cramped family houses and Cash picking up the oral history:
Cash: They call it share-cropping, and these are share-cropper houses, bungalows here. Most of them are what they call shotgun shacks: that’s three rooms in a row, front room, a middle room and a back room. (chuckle) Now each one of these houses had a barn, a chicken house, a smokehouse where the farmers, they raised their own hogs and cured their meat. And they had a mule and 20 acres of land here. The next house just up the road, the line, the property line, was halfway between the two houses. They all had 20 acres of land to begin with in 1935.
June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash walking before a concert in a scene from Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music.
It’s an evocation of the old times, still vivid in their memory. Their culture, the culture of a tightly-knit, homogeneous folk — “folk” seems the only appropriate word here — translates this with consummate ease into music. Here is a scene in which Cash and his wife June Carter visit John’s relatives, and June persuades one of them to sing a favorite song.
Woman 3: I really don’t have to sing that song again, do I?
June: Yeah, I’ve forgotten that song. (sings) On Monday we have bread and gravy …
Woman 3: (sings) On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread, On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy and toast, But that’s only gravy and bread. (June laughs)
Woman 3: (sings) On Friday we said to the landlord: Oh please give us something instead! So on Saturday morning by a way of a change we had gravy without any bread. (laughter)
The stoical humor of poverty is deployed time and time again. Here is Cash recounting what must have been a major disaster, being flooded out of their share-cropper’s house, in the song “Five Feet High and Risin’.”
Cash: Well, the hives are gone. I’ve lost my bees. The chickens are sleeping in the willow trees. Cow’s in water up past her knees. Three feet high and risin’.
June Carter turns to folk wisdom for an explanation of the endurance of the hard scrabble community.
June: I’m sure that if you ever lived on a cotton patch or in the part of the country where times are hard, that you appreciate the good things when they do come much more. Johnny and I talk so many times about the old saying, that line that says, “Steel is strong because it knew the hammer and white heat.”
But endurance did not mean that you could overcome a system stacked against you. Cash’s spoken ballad “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station” is a deceptively simple cameo of how the lives of people accustomed to hard work, but not to complaining about it, could be devastated by “progress” in the form of a state highway.
Cash: Most cars passed — unless they were out of gas — so Cisco was always around. Regular gas was all that he sold, except tobacco, matches and all. Other than that he’d fix lots of flats keeping Cisco’s rough hands soiled. He’d wipe the glass and check the air and a hundred times a day he patiently gave directions on how to get to the state highway. usually he’d give them water, or a tire or two, some air, and once a big black Cadillac spent seven dollars there.
All you are left with in the end is the wry humor of the last two lines, the only recourse you have for a small triumph over adversity. Cash’s accomplishment is to transcend the mundane, turning it into the quietly heroic. His people show all the dogged perseverance of the Joad family, the will to survive that we see in The Grapes of Wrath.
The down-home character of country music relates to a shared experience of hard times and life at a basic level, which offers ample opportunity to fall into sentimentality, but with Cash, this never seems to happen. You seize the wild moments (“Jackson”) — but for those moments, there’s always “The Devil to Pay.” Above all, you don’t lose grip of reality or forget your roots, as we see in the moving scene in which Cash goes to visit his old friends and relatives:
Woman of the house: Well, howdy! Both of you together, that’s real good.
Louise (Cash’s sister): Did you bake a cake?
Woman of the house: Well, you always come and I don’t bake a cake. Well, at least you won’t be getting pictures of me with my teeth out. Come on in here.
You celebrate success, but there is no tolerance of aggrandizement or self-deception.
Johnny Cash’s music reflects a gut empathy for the underdog, whether it is for the prisoner: “I walked in the big yard to feel the warm sunshine — A 99-year man stepped over to me — He offered a smoke — And he said as I rolled it — Tomorrow I’m going to break out and go free.”
Or for the history of Native Americans. He opens his performance before the Sioux on the Rosebud Reservation with fine grace:
Cash: I’ve got very little Indian blood in me myself, except in my heart I’ve got a 100 percent for you tonight. It’s good to be here.
Influenced by the words of a medicine man, he visits the site of the Wounded Knee massacre and composes the “Ballad of Big Foot,” which cuts through the mythology of the gallant cavalry of the Wild West to reveal Custer’s ethnic cleansing: “And farther up the canyon some had tried to run and hide — But death had showed no favors — women, men and children died.”
The appeal of so much of Cash’s lyrics lies in his ability to get inside the skin of others and to transform their experience into music. When pressed by an interviewer to analyze his music, it is obvious that he is not accustomed to doing that, in contrast to, say, Bob Dylan (who appears with him in a recording session), who is continually stepping back and looking at himself and reinventing himself.
Interviewer: Do you think there’s a main theme going throughout country and western music — I mean, a message or a type of thing they are trying to appeal to, in the country and western songs that you do?
Cash: I don’t know that it’s different from a lot of other music. There’s much more sadness in, in country music. Um — I don’t know what the real reason is, maybe because — I don’t know, because of the fact that it is from the grass roots and of the simple way of life.
Cash did not need to explain his music because it gushed from him in a continuous stream. In one revealing sequence, we see him in the process of composition. Like the country boy he once was, he is out in the woods with a bird gun, and he shoots a crow. But the bird is not dead, and Cash picks him up and caresses him.
Cash: I already like you for some reason. I’ll take you home and see if you’s hurt bad — OK? Then get on your good side, Mr. Crow. (laugh) (as the crow nips him) Whoa! Whoa! I’m gonna charm you yet.
And John’s way of charming the creature is to compose a song:
Cash (sings): But if I could fly like Mr Crow, Woman, I know where I would go. I’d leave you. Woman, I’d have to leave you.
The wounded crow turns into the singer’s muse. Bob Elfstrom says that Cash nursed the crow for over a week.
At one point when he is being interviewed, Cash replies, “there’s love, and love is the main theme of all music, of course. ” In another scene, he describes how, as in the crow scene, he was out in nature and composed a love-song, which he recalls for June, whom the song is about.
Cash: (sings) I walked — I walked through — I walked beside the wild oaks — Where the roebuck — Where the deer and the roebuck feed — but flesh and blood calls for flesh and blood, and you are what I need — Flesh and blood calls for flesh and blood, and you are what I need.
But love is not in fact the dominant theme of Cash’s music. When June asks him what the meaning of the song “Great Speckled Bird” is, he replies, “The great speckled bird is a symbol of the church, that’s what it means.” It was not until, in the process of editing, I had to listen very carefully to the words of the Perkins song, “Daddy Sings Bass” that I came to understand its meaning.
“I remember when I was a lad,
Times were hard and things were bad.
But there’s a silver lining behind every cloud.
Just poor people, that’s all we were.
Trying to make a living out of black land dirt.
We’d get together in a family circle singing loud.
Daddy sang bass.
Mama sang tenor.
Me and little brother would join right in there.
Singing seems to help a troubled soul.
One of these days and it won’t be long.
I’ll rejoin them in a song.
I’m gonna join the family circle at the Throne.”
It is about the power of music to overcome poverty — part of the fiber of country music — but also about the anticipation of the joyful reunion of the family, in song, finally, in heaven.
Cash’s faith was firm and unshakeable and as natural to him as breathing, as much a source of his genius as any other element of country music. His faith led him to the Holy Land, to transfixing Bob Elfstrom on the cross for their film “Gospel Road,” and, ultimately, through the transcendent experience of “Hurt,” and my immersion in The Man, His World, His Music to my own conversion into a Cash disciple.