Spaced over several months, Netflix has been bringing us a series of Johnny Cash – at Montreaux, in Scotland, in Austin. Tonight we saw him in Ireland. These have been enjoyable and at times riveting. They tend to repeat themselves, but on this tour he clearly moved his audience (silently mouthing the words) with one he didn’t sing in the others, “Forty Shades of Green.”
Tonight, however, I was struck again by the emotion he captures in his old standard, “Folsom Prison Blues.” We understand – some of us better than others. I tend to associate that longing with Celtic songs; it characterizes many old Irish ballads: rootless, discontented, melancholy, even angry. As we mature, we become estranged, that’s the nature of our growing self-consciousness. We will never, we feel, be at peace again. And in a way we won’t be. It will take a while to come to terms with that truth. The restlessness is not all that bad. It prods. We probably go farther driven by it.
Cash wrote this early; he matured, but I suspect he always understood it. Late Cash is a gentle man; earlier, his music was edgy and so was he. I suspect he rose above those demons – ones we all to some extent feel within. The lines are:
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars
But I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’ and that’s what tortures me.
Of course, the reason he “had it coming” is that he shot “a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” But that restlessness, that knowing others are moving when we are staying still, knowing others are – well, others are more successful or richer or just happier than we, that’s what “tortures” us. It doesn’t torture us any the less that we are at fault. It takes some rationalizing, but mostly, we’re just angry.
We grow out of that, maybe. Our religion tells us to leave it alone. But it tugs at us – and I suspect it tugs at some more than others. I understand it; sure, I wish I didn’t, but I do. That is James Webb’s tradition. That melancholy & then angry response to the train that moves on without us. Aggressive, assertive, moody, brooding. Nathan Smith examines just that attitude in “Poor Arguments: Bush, Webb, and Poverty” on TCS Daily. He contrasts Bush’s emphasis on “absolute poverty” with Webb’s on equality. He acknowledges Bush’s ideas may not all work, but their aim is to relieve the fact of poverty. Webb’s emphasis on “relative poverty” leads less to open-handedness & self-reliance, than to hunkering down & isolation. Of course, with relativity there are fewer useful benchmarks of success – someone somewhere else is always like to be happier or wealthier or healthier or. . . This inspires envy. Indeed, it can drive us crazy.
My feeling (and my experience as a reasonably flawed person) increasingly considers views such as Webb’s pernicious and those such as Bush’s liberating. Self-reliance frees us in ways that have little to do with power or money. The commandment is not to covet – the old laws understand our nature, how we are tempted. But part of the liberation from covetousness is to see farther – Webb only sees around him and is sure some are better off. By any standards, of course, we are all pretty well off.
Johnny Cash understands temptation. Bush, schooled in that old pragmatism also so central to our national character, wants to find what works. That discipline tempers the moodiness, the restlessness – it gives purpose. Bush has wrestled with his own demons; I suppose he understands. Still, the path Webb strikes out on makes for memorable music. However, the twentieth century showed us over and over again that a lust for equality nurtures the worst in us, while trying to solve problems together brings out the best.
(Given the quantity of responses, I want to observe: it was edited on at 7:26, Jan 26. I don’t think I changed any meaning or even images. I just saw a lot that needed better expression & especially better punctuation. I added a couple of embeds. – Ginny
(Cash owed & acknowledged a considerable debt to Gordon Jenkins for “Crescent City Blues”, sung from a woman’s point of view.)