Johnny Cash and June Carter were making out on stage.
They were preparing for an awards show in Nashville, enduring the long waits that are part of any rehearsal. What better way to pass the time?
This was in the mid-‘70s, and they were already an old married couple, but they seemed like teen-agers falling in love.
My wife happened to catch the eye of Ann Murray, the great Canadian singer, who was sitting nearby in an empty row. They both raised their eyebrows – but affectionately -- as if to say, “Get a room.”
I was thinking of this Sunday night during the latest episode of “Country Music,” the ongoing series from Ken Burns. The documentary may be a bit pat about racial and class divides and too formulaic about the terrible stresses of the ‘60s, but Burns has captured some of the personal statements of hope and change.
Sunday’s two hours focused on the mid-‘60s, as a time of change, not only in country music but at lunch counters and marches in the South and campuses and towns all over America.
Country music’s changes included Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill,” banned for a while by some chicken radio stations, and Charlie Pride’s acceptance as a black star who sounded white. The series says that Loretta was the presenter for the top male award in country music, and was told to keep her distance if Pride were the winner. However, when they met on stage, she moved forward and gave him a hug and a kiss.
Part Cherokee, Loretta was not going to let people tell her what to do in matters of race and color (or anything.)
In her book, Loretta says it happened in 1972 when she won the Entertainer of the Year Award. “People warned me not to kiss Charley in case I won, because it would hurt my popularity with country fans. I heard that one girl singer got canceled out Down South after giving a little peck to a black friend on television. Well, Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music, and I got so mad that when I won I made sure I gave him a big old hug and a kiss right on camera. You know what? Nobody canceled on me. If they had, fine. I’d have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.” – “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” by Loretta Lynn, with George Vecsey.
Other examples of ‘60s change were Dolly Parton, with her songs and her brains and her looks, willing herself up from East Tennessee poverty, and Merle Haggard, with his Warren Beatty looks and Bakersfield twang, overcoming his time in prison.
The most compelling figure in Sunday’s episode was Johnny Cash, with his childhood of deprivation from money and love, discovering his talent, and his feel for injustice. In the’60s, while males in Nashville were wearing Nudie’s of Hollywood peacock outfits, Cash wore only black, to show support for the underdogs, but the color was also an expression of his moods.
The series shows Cash blowing up his marriage for his passion for June Carter, but also getting deep into drugs. One live sequence shows him fidgeting at a recording session, twisting and turning, grimacing, removing his shoes, just out of his mind.
In one live performance, Mother Maybelle Carter, singing backup, watches him warily, knowing that at any moment she and her daughters might have to scrape him up off the floor. That segment ought to be an advertisement for just about any human on legal alcohol or illegal ”recreational” or or the pain-killers doctors and big pharma push on people.
Cash was zonked. Burns did not cite the song that Nick Lowe, Cash’s son-in-law at the time, wrote about Cash, who fine-tuned it into a standard: “The Beast in Me.”
….the beast in me
That everybody knows
They've seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it's New York or New Year
God help the beast in me…
When I was working on Barbara Mandrell’s book, she told how as a precocious teen-ager she traveled with the Cash entourage, and was treated respectfully, but she also recalled Cash in a diner, nervously picking the stuffing out of a Naugahyde booth, just a bundle of nerves.
The Sunday episode stressed personal revival, finishing in Folsom Prison, where Cash recorded his epic album, cracking jokes that the inmates got. He never had a better audience. There is a touching moment at the end where he performs a song written by one of the prisoners, and shakes his hand.
I will vouch for the feeling Cash gave of a transformed – saved -- man, after he sought help for his addictions. In 1973, I interviewed him and June Carter in New York, upon the opening of a movie they had made about the life and death of Christ. He was calm, reflective, and they were deeply in love.
Johnny Cash still wore black.
Having met him a few times, I am sure he would be wearing it today.
The back story to “The Beast in Me:”
My other memory of that rehearsal at the new theme park in the mid-‘70s, after the Opry had deserted its spiritual home, the Ryman Auditorium: Mooney Lynn (Loretta’s husband and my pal) and Roy Clark, the sweet-voiced troubadour, partaking of the upscale snacks, praising the hot and flaky hors d'oeuvre, which they lustily praised as “egg pie.” Quiche, that is. (They knew that. This is why I love country.)
Even after King’s assassination and Angelou’s poetry and eight years of an idealistic, educated family in the White House, it never went away.
It festered under the rocks, all over America, and then, like some super-microbe, it reasserted itself in 2016 with the affirmation of essentially half a country.
Now racism has its spokesman, its hero, speaking things that have been gathering in all corners of this diverse country, things people of color (my friends, my relatives) hear and feel every day: why don’t they go back where they came from?
This sentiment generally refers to people of color, people who are “different,” people who speak out. The Other.
Now they have their man, looking to weed out all those who don’t fit into the white mold. It’s been there all along. You can see it in the smug nods of the White Citizens Council that gathers behind the Grand Kleagle himself, Mitch McConnell, in the halls of the Senate.
Now President Donald J. Trump has blurted it out, perhaps to the consternation of his backers, who prefer to do it by degrees, by gerrymandering, with the assent of the Supreme Court.
Goodness gracious, even servile Lindsey Graham, lost without John McCain, has urged Trump to “aim higher” while essentially agreeing with Trump.
Trump and his stubby little tweeting fingers let it fly on Sunday, the rant of a bigot who needs a minder, wishing that four women – of course, women, it seems to me that he hates women – of “different” backgrounds, urging them to go back where they came from.
Except, of course, three of them were born in the United States, and all of them have succeeded admirably in this country which allegedly rewards strivers. But only if you’re Our Kind.
There is no need to insert the quotes here, it’s all out there. The president wants to deport Latino immigrants without the right papers, but he also wants to deport, psychologically at least, people who are different, “troublemakers” (as the Chinese call dissidents), even elected representatives who are challenging their own Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
Trump is speaking to his base, which seems to think the economy is going great -- for them, and that is all that matters. He is betting that the Supreme Court and the McConnells and the state legislatures will give his party – his race – an edge in 2020. And he is willing to play the race card, out in the open, knowing he has support, a lot of support.
Speaking of deporting – go back where you came from – it is worth remembering that Trump’s grandfather, one Friedrich Trump, left Bavaria and wound up in Seattle, apparently running restaurants and hotels and maybe even brothels. When that earlier Trump went back to Bavaria and sought to resume his citizenship, they deported him because he had avoided military service – a perfect example of rampaging genetics, come to think of it.
Friedrich Trump groveled to the prince:
“Most Serene, Most Powerful Prince Regent! Most Gracious Regent and Lord!”
And he concluded his plea:
“Why should we be deported? This is very, very hard for a family. What will our fellow citizens think if honest subjects are faced with such a decree — not to mention the great material losses it would incur. I would like to become a Bavarian citizen again.”
In Bavaria, they told Friedrich Trump: go back where you came from, so he wound up in Queens, New York, and his son, Fred Trump, was soon keeping black people out of his apartment buildings, on his way to shielding his revenue from taxes, to pass on to his children (one of them a judge; only in America.)
Now the grandson tells four duly elected members of Congress to go back where they came from, his rant based on racism. He has touched off a storm, but Trump has an audience.
It never went away.
* * *
(The reaction to Trump’s racist bleat on Sunday)
(The deportation of Friedrich Trump)
(Even Lindsey Graham urges Trump to aim higher)
I was poking around my iPod, listening to downloaded pop songs beginning with “M” – “Manha de Carnival” with Susannah McCorkle, “Manhata” with Caetano Veloso, The Dead’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried’– and up popped “The Man in Black,” by Johnny Cash.
I was immediately nostalgic for the man, and the mood, his all-black outfits, and the coal-black eyes piercing the soul of the audience.
Where are you, man?
This became his signature song, performed for the first time at a concert at Vanderbilt University in 1971 – a time of anti-war and pro-civil rights fervor. He addressed some students in the audience, saying that a conversation, few days earlier, had prompted him to write this song, explaining why he wore only black out in public.
I want to add that I met Johnny Cash a few times – once backstage at the Opry in the old and beloved Ryman Auditorium, just a bunch of people hanging around, a few feet away from the live performance. He was just one of the people backstage – old Ernest Tubb, young Dolly Parton, vibrant Skeeter Davis, people just hanging and chatting.
When he produced a Jesus movie in the mid ‘70s, I interviewed him and June Carter at C.W., Post College where the movie was being showcased. Again, he was the most approachable and democratic star, talking about his faith as a baby Christian, but (a gigantic “but”), not patronizing or dogmatic. They were the nicest couple.
My wife and I saw them again at a rehearsal for the country awards at the new (and sterile) Opryland in the early 80s. He and June were smooching during a break in the rehearsals; Anne Murray, sitting nearby, locked eyes with my wife, and they smiled warmly, as if to say, “Get a room.” Johnny Cash and June Carter were in love.
Not long afterward, catching a red-eye in California, I saw him coming down an empty corridor, a big man in black, his eyes a zillion miles away. I most definitely did not say hello.
Anyway, I think I can say, having been around Johnny Cash a few times, and having listened to his work (his time-growing-short album, “American Songs”), that he had a feel for his country, the poor, the imprisoned, the people trying to get clean, the marginal and the diverse.
I think I can say he hated bullies and pretenders. He came from rural Arkansas and he knew cities and campuses, could talk with students at Vanderbilt, could take their questions and make a song out of them.
I wish he were writing songs today, in the time of The Man in Orange.
* * *
(Just in case you are not into Johnny Cash’s voice, here are his lyrics.)
Man In Black
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.
Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black
Songwriters: Johnny Cash
Man In Black lyrics © BMG Rights Management
After months of home-repair madness, it was a treat to spend a quiet Easter at home. Then the pinging began on the phone.
I was puttering around, trying to restore order from the detritus of repairs. Marianne made a delicious vegetable-and-chicken soup.
New England: Easter Egg Atelier checks in
WNYC-FM was playing weekly jazz show. Two versions of "April in Paris," first by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, then by Count Basie ("one more -- once") Homage to the stricken Cathedral de Notre-Dame. Mel Torme. Bob Dylan. An American blues singer acing a song. Not American, my wife said. It's Adele. As always, she was right.
When friends in Jerusalem and the Upper West Side send the same link, it makes sense to read it -- and pass it on. Roger Angell, 98, has some thoughts on election day and citizenship.
What could be more American than an essay on voting by a hallowed member of the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame?
(The art was a bonus. I found it on line, and consider my posting it here as an endorsement for any artist who can put these three dudes in the same work.)
We stopped for gas on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania and spotted a food truck.
Or rather, we spotted the sign.
I was instantly sorry we had just eaten a great lunch and dessert after I gave a talk for adults and met with students at the bustling journalism center at vibrant Susquehanna University, in the pleasant river town of Selinsgrove, Pa.
After lunch in such good company, no way we could even sample a tamale.
But I pointed at the sign alongside Zapata’s Food Truck at Exit 256 and told the guys outside: "Próxima vez." Next time.
It is Black History Month, which means I always learn something.
This Black History Month has caused me to re-think my position on the first woman, or women, who should be on an American bill. But first:
Three years ago, Terrance McKnight of WQXR-FM did a documentary on a composer I had never heard of, Florence B. Price.
The other night, PBS ran a visual documentary on Price, and by now her music was more familiar to me, ranging from traditional classical to black gospel.
One of the experts (mostly black, via Arkansas Public Television) compared her to one of my favorites, Antonin Dvorak, who used folk music (in the deepest sense of the phrase) of two worlds, Bohemia and America.
Artists generally have it hard, but black artists have it harder. The PBS documentary showed how Price was inspired by classical music but segregation and economics held her back. She always had to be double good. (Sound familiar?)
In one pathetic episode, already accomplished, Price wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the legendary director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking to compose for him, and she felt the need to call attention to being “Colored.” He never wrote back.
Yet she had her triumphs. Mainstream conductors and critics and performers took her seriously, notably in her adopted home town of Chicago.
In one of the great moments in American history, Marian Anderson performed at the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939, after Eleanor Roosevelt had forced the issue. Anderson sang a hymn by Florence B. Price, her friend.
In the Arkansas documentary, an elderly black woman recalls, half a century later, being young and seeing a black woman singing to 75,000 people. The old lady daubs her eyes with a handkerchief. I bet you will, too.
How hard it was, how hard it is, to be black in America. Just look at the dignity of people who have been poisoned in Flint, Mich., because of the incompetent and heartless regime of a latter-day plantation massa, Gov. Rick Snyder.
But there are triumphs. Look at the lovely front-page photo of President Obama, speaking at a mosque in Baltimore, calling for a cessation of prejudice, as children smile in awe. We have seen those smiles on black service members when Obama visits the troops and on black citizens when Obama goes out in public. So there is that.
But Black History Month reminds us how hard America has been on any black who aspired. That is why I am wavering in my position that Eleanor Roosevelt should be on a bill. I think she may be the greatest woman yet produced by the U.S.A., but her greatness may have been in her advocacy of the underprivileged, for people of all colors.
Now I think the next bill (lose Andrew Jackson off the 20, not Alexander Hamilton off the 10) should be a tribute to the great women of color in America.
Who? How many? I leave that to historians. But when that glorious bill arrives, somebody should play the classical music of Florence B. Price.
Below: The multitalented Terrance McKnight accompanies Erin Flannery in “To My Little Son,” by Florence B. Price:
We’ve managed to catch some of the wonderful Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts on Public Television – a great vision of America, as vital as today’s front page.
In the parts we’ve seen, I recalled my slight personal connections to Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt.
As a young reporter, I interviewed Theodore Roosevelt’s younger daughter, Ethel Carow Roosevelt Derby, by then in her eighties, in Oyster Bay, Long Island. I almost blew the interview right away by referring to her father as a hunter. He was not a hunter, she snapped; he was a sportsman. (I had seen those heads in the museum.) The documentary refers to him often as a hunter. Mrs. Derby would not be amused.
As a five-year-old, in a household that loved Franklin and Eleanor, I was taken to his campaign through New York on a miserable rainy day, Oct. 21, 1944. I recall being on a hillside, watching the motorcade on Grand Central Parkway. The car was open, and his face was pasty white. The web says he told the crowd in Ebbets Field that he had never been there before, but claimed he had grown up a Brooklyn Dodger fan. He died six months later. That romp through the boroughs did not help.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a staple in the politics and affection of my family. Later we read books about how she pressured her distant husband into absorbing information about the plight of so many Americans.
Two things I have heard about Eleanor Roosevelt lately:
When I was working on the Stan Musial biography, I learned that Musial had joined a tour for John F. Kennedy in 1960, which included Angie Dickinson. The actress became a knowledgeable source about that campaign, telling me how she was addressing a crowd in the New York Coliseum on the Saturday before the election:
“My big claim to fame is that I was making my speech, and I heard a hush and they wheeled in Mrs. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and I got to say, ‘What I have to say isn’t important’– I almost was finished – ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the great Eleanor Roosevelt,’ and I got to introduce her.”
Dickinson’s respect, half a century later, was palpable.
I learned something about Mrs. Roosevelt recently while reading a very nice history book – Indomitable Will: Turning Defeat into Victory from Pearl Harbor to Midway, by Charles Kupfer, an associate professor at Penn State Harrisburg.
In the first shocking hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the President assembled advisors and friends in the White House, including Edward R. Murrow, the CBS broadcaster (this was back when networks maintained serious news organizations.) FDR picked the brains of Murrow, who had access to the back rooms of the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had fought for millions of poor people, who had fought for civil rights and women’s rights, cooked some eggs for Murrow. Kupfer’s book had me, right there, on Page 22.
The Burns documentary had me as soon as I saw the insecure half-smile of young Eleanor Roosevelt, before she discovered the activist within. Her wise eyes take the measure of a country that has failed its people. She spends her own money to build experimental communities in deepest West Virginia. She sets an example.
The camera cannot find too much of her. She reminds us of the men who went to war, the women who went to work, the blacks who wrote letters to the President, asking for help. Her face reflects the country many of us thought we were, or could have become.
As I wrote this, I flashed on something else about the Burns documentary: Elizabeth Warren reminds me of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The pose looked familiar – Americans unloading water from an aircraft carrier to the stricken islands of the Philippines.
It brought me back to the United States of my early childhood, toward the end of World War Two: not so much the fighting, but the recovery. When I was five, this was one face of America – G.I. Joe passing out chewing gum to the children of Normandy. Later we saw photos of Americans liberating concentration camps.
Perhaps it was a simplistic image, maybe even manipulated, but it was what we thought of the country, of ourselves.
The Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the post-war hopefulness, only reinforced that image. We took care of others; we took care of our own.
The news that the United States was dispatching the carrier George Washington to the east coast of the Philippines struck a familiar chord. Better than chewing gum – tons of water and medical supplies, delivered by helicopter to Leyte and Samar.
It reminded me that when the nihilists struck on 9/11, I got emails from friends in Japan and Mexico and France, asking, “Are you all right?” We were all in it together.
I am reminded of that when I hear an American president remind us what soldiers know. You take care of your own. The current president comes from that American heritage when he talks about the need for a more national health care.
Even with the technical glitches – SNAFU, they called it during the war – the goal is to keep all of us away from the emergency room, to address hunger and illness in the early stages, while there is still time.
The American president reminds me of G.I. Joe.
The people who sabotage him do not.
I have just squandered an hour or two of my life trying to solve the maze of streets named Peachtree in the northern Atlanta suburbs.
At $4 a gallon, this isn't funny.
My two sisters live in the northern burbs – half an hour apart, a long way from Queens. Between them are a staggering number of streets named Peachtree – Peachtree Corners, Peachtree Parkway, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.
In the dark, on badly-engineered roads with wretched signage, this can be downright frightening.
I have seen estimates that over 70 streets in the Atlanta area have the word Peachtree in them.
This suggests a staggering failure of imagination, if all the planners of the New South cannot do better than slap the name Peachtree on bisecting boulevards.
But I have a proposal. And it involves the great American pastime.
The Atlanta Braves have been in town since 1966, and by now have accumulated enough history to provide heroic names to replace most of those Peachtrees.
What makes it worse is that I just read that the name peachtree just may have stemmed from the type of pine, called a pitch tree, common to the south. How fitting if this regional jumble were based on a mistake.
I learned to like Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics (we lived in the very sweet Inman Park neighborhood near downtown) and later when my son’s family lived in Inman Park and moved out to Roswell. March is a gorgeous time to visit Atlanta. So is October.
This past weekend was a flying visit for a family reunion, but whenever I have time in Atlanta I love to visit friends and old haunts. However, I have a Peachtree rule: If a restaurant or some other business is listed on something called Peachtree, I won’t even try to patronize it. Otherwise, I could be driving up and down the region from Buckhead to Norcross, looking for the right Peachtree.
Here’s my proposal:
Keep one Peachtree St. The main drag on the spine of the hill in downtown Atlanta would seem to be the logical choice.
Then they should name every other Peachtree after a Braves stalwart – and there have been dozens of them.
Henry Aaron? Phil Niekro? Dale Murphy? Greg Maddux? Chipper Jones? Bobby Cox. I could keep going. John Smoltz. Tom Glavine. Rico Carty.
And when they are finished with the stars, I bet there is some humble little Peachtree Circle out in the middle of nowhere, where confused out-of-town drivers sometimes blunder. One modest cul de sac could be named Francisco Cabrera Circle, in honor of the vagabond who delivered the clutch hit that put the Braves into the 1992 World Series.
Who should be in charge of this crucial task to end the anarchy on the Atlanta highways?
This task demands an eminent historian.
I suggest the Georgia favorite who is currently blustering around the country, running for public office.
Pretty soon, Newt Gingrich is going to need a job other than soliciting funds from wealthy sponsors. It’s time to put Newt’s massive intellect to work on something truly challenging -- ending Peachtree anarchy.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: