Learn to ball a jack. Learn to lay a track. Learn to pick and shovel, too. And take my hammer. – from The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer
(This is the third of four Johnny Cash reviews leading up to the release of this “Johnny Cash: The Legend” 4-CD box set on August 2.) Review of DISC 1 – Win, Place And Show – The Hits, here. Review of DISC 2 – here.
DISC 3 – The Legend: American Songbook (26 tracks, 66 minutes)
By Temple A. Stark, Casa Grande, Ariz.
Apparently your American Songbook has a lot to do with trains. Seven of the 26 songs here lie between the iron spikes, cross ties and steel rails: “The Wreck of old 97″, “Rock Island Line”, “Waiting For a Train”, “Casey Jones”, “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Wabash Cannonball.” Half a dozen more reference trains.
Just like you always wanted to hear Cash narrate “Take Me Out To the Ball Game,” this previously unreleased version of “I’ve Been Working …” completely satisfies and fits the man perfectly. As does rockabilly, from Cash’s first days of learning the guitar while stationed in Germany.
Rockabilly has a natural driving rhythm that recalls the rails and the rolling steel wheels of cargo and commerce railroad cars passing through to the next city. It sounds just like the locomotives pulling away and starting a journey: a slow motion, like it’s going to stop. But it doesn’t and rolls on. And, as in “A Thing Called Love” it speeds up and pushes on. And, of course, this rhythm is deliberate on “Rock Island Line.”
That’s fine by me. Last night on Arizona 84 I paralleled a long container train for about 10 miles, slowly gaining. Rain poured, and sheet lightning and strikes both crashed behind the flatbeds.
The windshield wipers in front of me pulled at the same time and had not Neko Case’s music been playing I would have rolled down the window, got wet and listened to the Southern Pacific train cross the Casa Grande Valley.
The only other wide departure of music for Cash throughout the majority of his career is a Spanish style – Mariachi or just slow south of the border drawl songs such as Ring of Fire, Matador, and Rosanna’s Going Wild. It’s clear that in Cash’s music, passion equals that hot Latin blood.
Perhaps that’s too limiting. I hear a Cash voice that carries me along through some of his detours into musical hinterland. And to me that’s a style all by itself. And I hear the Spanish, too, as something distinct.
This particular American Songbook does include, oddly, “Delia’s Gone,” describing in surprising detail the stabbing and shooting of Delia. It’s a great song. I heard Guns and Roses’ “Used To Love Her” first, but one is sung with more humor and the other is Johnny Cash:
If I hadn’t shot poor Delia I’d have had her for a wife. Delia’s gone one more round Delia’s gone. First time I shot her, shot her in the side. Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died.
Humor is all over the next song, “In the Jailhouse Now,” however.
I had a friend named Bill Camel, used to rob, steal and gamble. And on the side he’d beg so he mopped up .. .. I met his old gal Sadie, she said, ‘Have you seen Bill lately?’ I said, I don’t believe that he’s about. She went down to the jail. She went down to take him his mail then she whispered, ‘Sheriff, please don’t let him out.’
Here with this collection of songs, though, America seems a melancholy place, with the likes of such ballads as “Down In the Valley*”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Goodbye Lil’ Darlin”, “Born to Lose”, “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie”, “Old Shep” and “Walking the Blues.” I’m not too sure that reflects Cash’s America either, but it does all set a mood of reflection.
Lost & found love (“Goodbye Little Darlin’”, “Goodnight Irene” and more), cotton harvest (“In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home”, “Pick A Bale O’ Cotton”) and America’s natural beauty round out the subject matter of this songbook.
“Song of a Patriot” (with its Sousa march whistle) and the poetry of “This Ragged Old Flag” are glaring omissions here – for whatever reason — and it’s a shame.
The sun, river water, love (or at least lust and the other sins), trains are all impenetrable, inevitable forces. All are part of and define Johnny Cash. All I know is that I tuned into the voice early. Like a clap of rolling thunder it smacks and moves you. And you know there’s going to be lightning ahead.
No one should forget longtime song producer cowboy Jack Clement who previously told a newspaper reporter: “With Johnny Cash, his voice always intrigued me because it’s got so much power in it. It gets on the tape, and you can put symphony orchestras with it or a roomful of banjos or a roomful of horns or whole bunch of rhythm guitars – whatever you want – and it doesn’t drown him out. I always called him ‘Captain Decibel’ for that reason. The loudest recording voice I ever heard. Just thick, full.”
We have too many people, too many artists (too many record companies) who force-feed us the positive; we have too few who can sincerely offer up both the lows and highs of life. The ideal of America may be positive. But the “rumble and the roar” journey along the way is anything but. Cash told us this.
*(Another previously unrelased demo found in the House of Cash after both June Carter and Johnny Cash’s deaths.)