Johnny Cash: the Man in Black

Laurie Wilcockson 31 May 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

And the lonely voice of youth cries, ‘what is truth?’

These are the words Johnny Cash sung out at President Nixon during his performance at the White House, in an act of defiance against the continuation of the Vietnam War, and the silencing of the young by an archaic older generation. He wrote What is Truth against the backdrop of the ‘Summer of Love,’ during a period of particular American division. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy had both been assassinated not two years before, Woodstock had provided a cultural zenith for the 60s hippie movement, and Richard Nixon, the archetypal Republican Christian conservative, had taken the White House after years of democratic control. What America needed was a grounded voice that could speak to everyone, and Cash took it upon himself to embody that.

Cash had always tried to Walk the Line when it came to politics. A devoted patriot and former veteran of the Korean War, as well as himself having been raised a devout Christian conservative, he was in many ways the ideal poster boy for Republicanism. But Cash had had a difficult childhood in an impoverished family, and that had given him a unique empathy for the downtrodden and the forgotten in society, something that meant he was also the perfect candidate for the Democratic Party to claim as theirs. Cash did not, though, subscribe to either of the major parties, and it was said by his son that he would be happy with both sides claiming him.

However, in such a polarised period, this became impossible to maintain, and when Nixon invited Cash to perform at the White House, he was suddenly forced to reconcile his own views with those that were expected of him. Nixon, like most politicians, had a specific image of who his voting bloc were. These were nuclear families in middle America: Christian, white, and part of the burgeoning middle class. They supported the war in Vietnam, and were violently opposed to drugs, protests, and especially the hippie movement. For Nixon, rolling Cash out onto a stage was an attempt to appeal to those people, but then had the side affect of forcing Cash to perform to those same ideas, something he could not accept without sacrificing his own, more nuanced views.

Eventually, he decided that he would find a way to walk the line once again, accepting the invitation to the White House, but refusing to play the pro-America tracks Nixon had specifically requested. Instead, he performed several of his classics – songs that had made him famous, as well as his new song, What is Truth, a clear-cut song of defiance against conservative America, and Nixon himself.

Much later, after the Watergate scandal broke, and Nixon’s presidency ended in scandal, Cash released his deepest, and most personal song of his career – Man in Black. The song is a soliloquy about what Cash represents, and the voices he wishes to represents. It is a poem explaining the difficulties of reality, and that so long as there are those who need their voices heard, he will represent them on the stage. “Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day, and tell the world that everything’s okay,” he tells us, “but I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back. Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” This song can almost be viewed as a reaction to the upheavals of the government at the time and showing Cash’s disaffection with it. He felt as though he had to carry the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, because nobody else would.

This cynical poeticism came to symbolise Cash’s character, cementing his position as a cultural icon bigger than just his music. He was a public speaker who used music as his medium, and his unique understanding of what people wanted and needed to hear was something he maintained a grip on throughout his career. His show, which was viewed predominantly by a southern, Christian audience, still hosted the likes of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, in spite of risks of alienating Republican audience members by giving a platform to young progressives. In a similar-yet-opposing vein, after performing a segment signalling his support of Nixon’s plan to end to Vietnam War, Cash forced the producers to keep it in despite them insisting it could lose him the progressive half of his audience. For Johnny Cash, appealing to his audience was secondary. His primary goal was acting as a national mirror, forcing America to look back at itself, and reflect on all of its issues and problems.

There is an authenticity to Cash that diffuses into his music. His rise to fame was catalysed by his performances in front of prison audiences, while his album Bitter Tears was written with a focus on the struggles of contemporary Native Americans in the face of governmental prejudices. His own life story was one fraught with personal difficulties. His elder brother had died young after an accident involving a table saw, and his father struggled so much with it that he took it out on Cash for the rest of his life. He also was heavily involved in drugs, an issue that he spoke about openly, and which led to him getting into trouble with the law constantly – although he never served a prison sentence.

It was this sense of being an ‘outlaw’ of society that really reached out to people. It was Cash’s view that no one truly fits into the mould society shapes for them, and he was the one voice on national media that was telling them that that was okay. The expectations on the youth to listen to their elders, sign up to the draft, and be content with going unheard in politics; the expectations of Native Americans to be content with their long-owned land being seized and turned into federal land; the expectations of prisoners to sit in prison content with an unfair sentence. These issues, and many more besides, were ones that Cash felt a personal duty to get involved in, and tell people they were right to be angry, to feel alienated, and to demand a voice.