Earlier this week, members of Johnny Cash's extended family gathered in his boyhood home of Dyess, Ark., to commemorate what would have been the singer's 80th birthday. That celebration jump-starts a tsunami of Cash activity this year, including the release of new and old music and the opening of a Johnny Cash museum in Nashville. "The Man in Black" will be toasted and lionized and, hopefully, appreciated.
One aspect of Cash's iconic career that I hope isn't overlooked is his antipathy toward the war in Vietnam. Most Americans like to think of the Vietnam era in stereotypical ways, with right wing "Hawks" on the one side and left-wing/hippie "Doves" on the other. We do the same with the music of that era, pitting country and western music (i.e., Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee") against protest songs (i.e., Country Joe, CSNY's "Ohio," etc.). Thus, artists like Cash are cast as right wing, pro-war zealots.
But, as with the war and with Cash himself, it's a lot more complicated than that.
As a Vietnam vet, I've become aware of how much the music of that era speaks volumes about that time, in honest and more truthful ways, than the politics do. My colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Craig Werner, and I have spent the past seven years interviewing hundreds of Vietnam vets about the music that resonated with them during that time. What we've discovered is a much truer "oral history" of the Vietnam veteran experience, one that finds many vets embracing songs and musicians that defy simplistic categorization and stereotyping. Nowhere is this more pronounced than with Johnny Cash.
A veteran himself, Cash understood the responsibility and obligation to serve. He did his duty, spent four years in the Air Force, and stood by his country. He believed in America. Thus, it's no surprise that Cash and his wife June Carter traveled to Vietnam to perform for soldiers in early 1971. Black and white, rich and poor, officer and draftee, rural and urban -- Vietnam soldiers loved Johnny Cash and his music. For them, Cash stood for hard work, tough times, resilience, and honesty.But Cash's visit to Vietnam in 1971 changed him and his attitude toward the war. As he explains in Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader:
I went to support our guys, because I loved them so much. I know they didn't want to be there, which is why I went over myself. I was asked to come to Vietnam and I was paid well, but right away we all got caught up in the whole thing. Pretty soon June, Carl Perkins, and I were doing seven and eight shows a day, sometimes for only ten people in a hospital ward.
Upon his return home, Cash described himself as a "dove with claws," a description he would later come to regret. But his outrage was strong, and he put it in two of his songs. In "Man in Black" he wrote: "I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been/ Each week we lose a hundred fine young men." His next hit was "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues" which talks about the Vietnam concert tour and ends with these lines:
Well now that's about all there is to tell
about our little trip and the livin' hell
and if I ever go back over there again
I hope there's none of our boys to sing for
I hope this ol' war's over with and they're all back home
To stay in peace
We like to think of Johnny Cash as a patriot. And he is. In the truest sense of the word, Johnny Cash took issue with his country when he saw first hand that our policy in Vietnam was wrong. He talked about it, he wrote about it and he did something about it. Let's hope that Johnny Cash legacy is not forgotten by those who erect monuments to his name.