By: Jake Adam York
Not every song can present such an auditory palimpsest, but it’s not necessary for every song to do such work. In the case of Cash’s 1994 American Recordings disc, the discontinuities and complexities of “Delia’s Gone” constitute a pattern not for each of the songs but for the album as a whole. Nine of the thirteen tracks are written by others. Some of the songs arrive from expected sources that express Cash’s country origins, as with “Why Me Lord,” provided by Kris Kristofferson. Others, however, come from outlying counties of popular music. “Down There By The Train” only barely betrays the harder rock of Tom Waits’ roots-inflected song-craft, and “Thirteen,” a song written Glen Danzig, former frontman of the legendary punk outfit The Misfits delivers all the melodrama that marks heavy metal from rock. But Cash is able to make each song his own, tying together disparate personal and generic tendencies with the instrument that has come to signify history most consistently, his voice.
The voice is so strong, it even seems to reverse the paths of history at times. “Thirteen,” for example, was first recorded by Cash, having been tendered by Danzig at Rick Rubin’s request. Only later, five years later, did Danzig raise his own voice into those lyrics, on the album 6:66 Satan’s Child. But the struggle isn’t Cash’s to naturalize Danzig’s tune; the struggle is Danzig’s to reclaim it.
The track appears at the close of Danzig’s twelve-track fantasmagoria but, despite its self-conscious nihilism—“The list of lives I’ve broken reach from here to hell”—the performance is subdued, constrained by the precedent of Cash’s own implacability. Danzig’s trademark caterwaul is conspicuously absent, so he almost talks the song; if there’s any difference between this reperformance and Cash’s, it’s ultimately not one of tone or approach but volume, as if one could insist one’s way out of history.
Cash reverses the order of things again in a recording of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” on American V: A Hundred Highways, which may be the last of the American series, appearing almost three full years after his death.
This song, like “Delia’s Gone” has a long foreground. Under various titles, including “God Almighty’s Gonna Cut You Down,” “Run On For A Long Time,” and more simply “Run On,” the tune has been something of a minor gospel standard for decades.
The Golden Gate Quartet recorded “God Almighty Is Gonna Cut You Down” for its 1947 album Atom and Evil, and Bill Landford and the Landfordaires recorded it again, shortly thereafter, in 1949 (a version sampled by Moby on Play). Odetta’s version appeared on her 1956 Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, and Elvis recorded it as “Run On” for his 1967 How Great Thou Art. More recently The Blind Boys of Alabama offered “Run On For A Long Time” on its 2001 album Spirit of the Century.
Cash’s take on this tune, which is credited as “Traditional,” is the second track on A Hundred Highways. It’s not even the first cover, as it follows a version of Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me,” and it’s not the last, as Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” are close behind. But “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is the album’s standout, for many of the reasons “Delia’s Gone” was so powerful.
The lyrics, which suggest a round with frequent return to an extended refrain, are nearly spoken, delivered with an almost tired composure. Some have remarked, in recent years, that Cash’s voice has sounded tired or brittle in these last recordings, but here the ease seems to register the fact that, outside Odetta’s version, the song is usually delivered entirely in harmony, several voices combining the whole way through. Even in Elvis’s version, a strong chorus haunts his lead all the way through the song, refusing him too much vocal leeway. Cash performs here as if in a chorus, as if working in a narrowed range between other voices, so we can almost hear the evensong of Bill Landford’s delivery.
Just so, the song’s instrumentation testifies to the its choric background. A slide guitar, maybe two, keep the central melody, while another’s fingerpicked to open the chords’ notes, as if making them available for late-arriving harmonizers.
The percussion as well doubles itself and offers multiple avenues to the governing rhythm. Kick drums keep the bars, while hand-claps imply the gathering of a prayer meeting or a quartet. So, the tripling or quadrupling in the Golden Gate Quartet version, Bill Landford’s version, and the Blind Boys of Alabama version enters the song, keeping close company with Cash’s paces.
But Cash’s reach engages history, allows it, without being appropriated by it. And so his voice rises once, when his line departs from tradition. Each version narrates a direct command from Jesus to preach God’s anger to various sinners.
Usually the first transit from verse to refrain passes through the lines: “Then he put one hand upon my head / Great God Almighty, let me tell you what he said.” Cash’s version, however, goes this way: “He called my name, and my heart stood still / When he said John, go do my will....” Cash’s voice rises on his own name, creating in the song a moment of self-recognition as Cash performs both his own part and that of Christ and so, in a sense, calls his own name, a moment in which Cash, with one foot keeping time with history, also steps into the moment of his own performance.
This is where Cash asserts his own artistry, the prerogative of the performer, and exceeds the boundaries of tradition. And perhaps paradoxically, Cash creates a moment in which his performance seems almost antecedent to any of the historically prior recordings since it could just as well be a moment that has not yet been regulated by repetition rather than one that exceeds that repetition.
Taken together with the carefully rooty guitar orchestration and the country-church hand-clapping, it’s hard to say what, exactly, is the sound of 2003 or 2006 or 1935: the mixing is seamless, but the moment of self-identification breaks the form and curls like a signature to tie the rest into a moment that belongs to the singer, wherever he belongs.
Cash’s five records for American and the four discs of material brought forth in the Unearthed box set develop a space between nostalgia, which wishes from a distance or simply denies the distance at which a present life is lived, and what I would call aftertude, a demonstrated escape from the past, however supportive—an escape that increasingly valorizes the creativity, the reforming power of a younger artist while showcasing the wisdom of that artist’s attention to his or her forebears.
This is the wonder that is Carla Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger (2003), a song-by-song remake of Willie Nelson’s 1975 classic concept album. The original was an interesting species of historical reconstruction, a cycle built on a folk tale created by Nelson to situate songs written in traditional forms, like waltzes, at a time when the country music at large seemed to be losing touch with its roots. And Bozulich’s reconstruction participates in such staged nostalgia, in simple gestures, like the inlay tableau of molded plastic children’s toys, and in more impressive arrangements, such as the feat of getting Nelson himself to appear on three of the album’s tracks.
But if Nelson’s presence secures the relationship between the present effort and the precedent endeavor, it does nothing at all to constrain or even to definitively locate Bozulich’s recreation, which veers quickly and often into the high relief of her own emotional landscapes. For example, as Bozulich, in the third track, reprises the “Time of the Preacher” theme, per Nelson’s sequence, the instrumental and the vocal textures become more densely grained and distended, as violin bows and vocal cords scrape over light distortion and persistent, seething feedback.
The track doesn’t, as it might, simply signal the return of one of the tale’s major figures. It is more importantly and more audibly an apotheosis of the remembrance that produces the album. Bozulich seems to reach for the next note, the next bar, and the song’s time retards, as if to allow a recovery, then quickens toward the next crisis; altogether, the song seems to reach back, toward Nelson’s original, as if the musician is working without a chart, trying to hear her way back to the plan.
Just so, at large, Bozulich’s revisitation of Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger seems aware of itself as such—it announces or performs this self-awareness in its aftertude—to such an extent that its self-awareness assures its difference, its independence, and its status as a thing in itself. The goal of Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger is not, it seems, to contest, challenge, stand beside, or even directly approach Nelson’s. Instead, it seems determined to follow, using the original as a benchmark, trading on the stability of the first iteration toward its own development. Bozulich’s album exists in an afterness that allows the music to become something else, something new: freed of the burden of maintaining the form of the original, the musical effort can be invested toward the development of Bozulich’s own style, the highly expressivist seethe that unfolds like napalm in winter on her subsequent release Evangelista.
In his poem “Elegy for the Southern Drawl,” Rodney Jones writes:
I feel odd hearing a tape of my own voice
That marks wherever I go, the sound
Of lynchings, the letters of misspellings
Crooked and jumbled to dupe the teacher,
Slow ink, slow fluid of my tribe, meaning
What words mean, when they are given
From so many voices, I do not know myself
Who is speaking and who is listening.
Jones expresses in these lines better than I have and better than I could the experience of being an audible Southerner in America. From those first days in Ithaca, New York, I found my own history, written in the drawling tones of my own voice, dogged me, answering to everyone’s call but my own. I wanted so badly, hearing what others heard issuing from my throat, to step away from my own history, or to stand on top of it, so I could look out in new directions and, maybe, learn to sing a different song.
In those moments, I searched for something like Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger, an album which I still envy, wishing for both the confidence and the mastery that would allow me, in my life and in my writing, to discover the particular formation of history I could form into the ideal foundation for my future, that would support the architecture of my aspiration.
When I began listening to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and BR5-49, I was looking for this, a kind of aftertude that would free me from my history and give me power to use it rather than be used by it. But in those albums, I found gestures, not poetics, and so I shelved them, as I shelve Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger.
Cash, though, is perpetual rotation. The jewel cases crowd the CD player. The list of his songs is among the longest in my iPod. Not a week goes by without some Cash, and I’ve taken to the work so completely, I’ve tried to get my colleagues to adopt the name as a term for excellence, as in “That is so Johnny Cash.”
Cash’s work carries, for me, the lesson of a quiet confidence, a trust in one’s ability to stand surrounded by a past without being overwhelmed by it, and a knowledge of one’s place and a sense that history is not something that can be exceeded, something one can escape through insistence. Rather, it provides the chords we must harmonize.
What I learned in New York, what I forever relearn, is that, though my accent is not terribly thick or deep, it remains so steadfastly I can never escape my origins enough to have an aftertude, and I question too much to find a quiet home in a neighborhood of the past. More and more I live in an in-between, and I listen to Cash, not just for comfort, but for prayer as well.
Tonight, I’m listening to Cash’s “Southern Accents,” a Tom Petty tune on the second American album, Unchained. I keep replaying one verse in particular:
There's a dream I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And she kneels down over by the window
And says a prayer for me.
I got my own way of praying
But everyone's begun
With a Southern accent
Where I come from.
Tonight, I hope that somehow I too can blend my voice with the bygone, in the ghost choruses of culture, and yet raise it when called to answer, to be able to say, with strength, “I’ve got my own way of talking,” yet listen rightly, if the voice that gives me voice should say, in some way, Go do my will.