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Johnny Cash stood up for the little guy
Why he wore black

By Brian Belknap | September 26, 2003 | Page 9

JOHNNY CASH died on September 12 at age 71 from complications related to diabetes. He leaves behind a wealth of songs that dealt with the everyday struggles of ordinary people, from sharecroppers to coalminers to convicts.

"I Never Picked Cotton" is typical. It tells the story of a man who chose a life of crime over breaking his back in the fields. Defiant to the last, he goes to the gallows recounting the things he's done, and repeating, "But I never picked cotton."

Cash spent his life taking the side of people like that man and pointing out the hypocrisy of a society that judges those forced to make those choices. Johnny, however, did pick cotton--for 15 years on the 20 acres in Dyess, Ark., that his father got in a government grant during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Cash headed north to find work in an auto factory in Pontiac, Mich., which later resulted in his 1976 recording "One Piece at a Time," about an autoworker who stole an entire car piece by piece in his lunchbox. Like many of the songs he sang, it was deceptively simple. But underneath the humor is the unavoidable question: Why is it that someone who had spent their life making cars was unable to buy one?

His music was deceptively simple as well. He favored the spare rhythmic guitar of Luther Perkins and the percussive slap bass of Marshall Grant--The Tennessee Two--over the more traditional fiddle and pedal steel.

Their sound caught the ear of Sun Records' Sam Phillips, who was also recording Elvis Presley. Cash's early Sun Recording, "Folsom Prison Blues," began his long association with prisons.

In 1956, while Cash's band was playing a prison rodeo in Huntsville, Texas, a storm came up, and their only amp shorted out. Johnny kept playing as prisoners defied prison regulations to come out of the stands and crowd around him. Johnny and his band stood in the rain and played requests for "Folsom Prison Blues" over and over.

He'd been playing in prisons for more than 10 years when he recorded his legendary live prison records in San Quentin and Folsom in the late 1960s. "I really was interested in some kind of prison reform," he said in a 1994 interview, "but I don't think that's the answer. The answer is out on the street. Jobs. Opportunities. Racial prejudice is another thing that's wrong, and a reason for the crime and the drugs, too."

Cash was inspired by the movements of the 1960s and spent months reading about the plight of Native Americans. The result was his record Bitter Tears and the song "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," the true story of a Pima Indian who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima in World War Two, but faced bigotry and rejection when he came home. In the end, "He died drunk one mornin'/Alone in the land he fought to save/Two inches of water in a lonely ditch/Was a grave for Ira Hayes."

The song rose to number three on the country charts, but many programmers refused to play it. In disgust, Johnny took out a full-page ad in Billboard that read, "'The Ballad of Ira Hayes' is strong medicine. So is Rochester-Harlem-Birmingham and Vietnam. Where's your guts?"

He crossed musical boundaries as well, playing Bob Dylan's songs when it was unheard of for a country singer to play folk music. At the height of his career in 1971, Cash used his TV show as a platform for antiwar protest singers like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

He performed "Man in Black" on the show. "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he's a victim of the times."

Cast aside by Nashville in the 1980s, he was approached by producer Rick Rubin, who worked with Public Enemy, in the early '90s, to record for his American Recordings label. The four records Cash made for American were among his best, the simple arrangements recalling his earlier work. He combines his own ballads with songs by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Nick Cave and makes it all work. He recorded hundreds more songs yet to be released--among them Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," sung with The Clash's Joe Strummer.

The results won him a Grammy in 1998 for best country record. Instead of thanking the country music establishment that rejected him, he took out another full-page ad in Billboard featuring a picture of a much younger Cash flipping the bird.

A story told by Kris Kristofferson probably best sums up Johnny Cash. "I opened for John in Philadelphia a few years ago, and I dedicated a song to Mumia Abu-Jamal," Kristofferson told Rolling Stone magazine in 2000. "The police at the show went ballistic. After I came off, they said that I had to go out and make an apology. I felt pretty bad, because it was John's show. But John heard about it and said to me, 'Listen, you don't need to apologize for nothin'. I want you to come out at the end of the show and do "Why Me" with me.' So I went out and sang with him. John just refuses to compromise."

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