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