Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.
Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”
Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.