Last year, Johnny Cash returned to the news from beyond the grave. But few were pleased with how the Man in Black was resurrected.
In the aftermath of 2017’s deadly alt-right rally surrounding a Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Charlottesville, VA, photos of an alt-right marcher sporting an Ed Hardy-style Johnny Cash t-shirt spread through social media. Johnny’s eldest daughter Rosanne was disgusted. Writing on behalf of her siblings, she said the Cash shirt-sporting neo-Nazi “sickened the family.” Her father, she wrote, was a man whose “heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice.” He was a southerner, but never embraced the Rebel flag, let alone a swastika.
Cash was no Nazi, so you can listen to At Folsom Prison guilt-free. But Cash’s Cash’s political allegiances are difficult to gauge. Despite the Man in Black nickname, Cash’s view of politics had many shades of gray.
Cash’s politics were nuanced and complicated. Were he alive today, he would identify more with the Democrats than Republicans. Even so, he never allied with one political party, and he said he never voted in his life. Cash grew up in a New Deal-era government-planned farming community, so it’s unlikely he’d side with government-hating tea party types. He was an outspoken champion of the downtrodden but was careful enough in his defense of certain causes—whether speaking out in the 1960s for Native Americans or playing for prisoners at Folsom and San Quentin—to avoid alienating his fans. Both the left and right claim him as his own, and Cash met with and performed for politicians of all kinds. He was friends with Al Gore, and he put on a memorable concert for Richard Nixon in 1970.
In the wake of Nixon’s resignation, Cash penned one of his most political songs “Ragged Old Flag,” which epitomized Cash’s particular brand of wearied optimism. As a patriot, defender of the underdog, and someone who connected with common folks, Cash was a populist in the best sense of the word. He was born and raised in a “Solid South” where most whites were virulent racists and staunchly Democrat. Cash’s hometown of Dyess, Arkansas, banned black residents. But despite some embarrassing racist outbursts when he was in the Air Force in the early 1950s, Cash was a creature of the New South, where many white southerners saw a way forward on civil rights.
And yet, Cash was oddly quiet about African-American efforts in the 1950s and ‘60s for equality. His politics were more personal. A risk-taking musician himself, he hung out with folkies and defended Dylan’s unpopular decision to go electric. Most memorably, he played for convicts on two smash-hit live albums. He also sung about the plight of Americans on his 1964 concept album Bitter Tears.
As millions of Americans were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, Cash was getting sober and becoming more political than ever. In 1968, he played a handful of concerts for Arkansas’s governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, during a heated reelection campaign. Cash liked Rockefeller’s stance on prison reform in a time when Arkansas had the worst prison system in the country. With Cash’s help, Rockefeller won reelection.
In 1969, with the Vietnam War at its height, Cash essentially adopted a stance of “support the troops.” He wanted Americans home in peace, but he trusted Richard Nixon to end the war honorably. Cash called himself a “dove with claws.” But, Cash being Cash, he realized the metaphor was redundant: doves already have claws.
In the 1970s, Cash turned inward. He had a spiritual rebirth born of kicking drugs (temporarily) and recommitting himself fatherhood. He still played concerts for prisoners, but he became less committed to justice reform as the ‘70s wore on. Nevertheless, in the “Me Decade,” Cash seemed to embody the values of patriotism, family, and religiosity in an era when the country had seemingly lost its way.
After struggling personally and artistically in the 1980s, Cash found a new audience in the 1990s thanks to producer Rick Rubin. By then, Cash’s most political days were behind him. But he still took an interest in the justice system. In 1994, he sent a telegram to the governor of Arkansas urging him to stop the execution of three prisoners in one day. Cash’s plea, however, was ignored.
Johnny Cash died in 2003, a few months after the United States invaded Iraq. At the Republican national convention the following year, the GOP sponsored a celebration of Cash. Rosanne Cash was appalled, saying her father was no fan of Bush’s war in the Mid-East.
Historical figures like Johnny Cash can’t control their legacies. Robert E. Lee disliked the idea of statues dedicated to Civil War figures. But there Lee is, enshrined in marble in Charlottesville. It’s a measure of Johnny Cash’s appeal that just about everybody likes him. Sometimes, that means Man in Black swag is worn by “very fine people on both sides.”
To borrow a title from one of Cash’s last hits, that can hurt.
Colin Woodward is a historian, editor, and podcaster in Richmond, Virginia. A former resident of Arkansas, he has been researching and writing on Cash for the past six years. He is revising a book, “Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash.”