Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity by Leigh H. Edwards

by Jason Buel

26 May 2009

cover art

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

Leigh H. Edwards

(Indiana University Press)
US: May 2009

“There I was, singing about the praises of the Lord and singing about the beauty and peace you can find in him—and I was stoned”. Johnny Cash was a complex and troubled human being. The idea of “Johnny Cash” as a figure in popular culture continues to be not only complex, but even paradoxical, as author Leigh H. Edwards asserts. Edwards examines the popular representation of Cash primarily through his songs, biographies, public appearances, and music videos. The above quote from the man himself is used as a preface to the chapter on his relationship with religion. It serves as a great example of his embodiment of both poles of an apparent dichotomy both in his music and his personal life.

Of course, using illicit substances and being devoutly religious may not necessarily be as separate as they seem: both drug use and religious practice may be used to combat bad feelings or inner turmoil, both have inspired artists in many different genres to create, and Karl Marx as much as asserted that they are one in the same. Nevertheless, the conservative evangelical Baptist style of Christianity that Cash seemed to most often subscribe to would not have condoned the “hard living” aspects of Cash’s life that included the use of amphetamines. Of course, even pinpointing Cash’s religious ideology may be more difficult than it seems. Even though he toured with Reverend Billy Graham and frequented Baptist churches, Cash also denounced organized religion and was anti-denominationalist. 

In addition to what she calls the “saint-sinner binary”, Edwards analyzes Cash’s image in the context of race issues in America (predominately in regards to American Indian/White and African-American/White relationships and binaries), gender identity, class issues, and notions of “authenticity and persona” in popular culture as a whole and country music specifically. She examines these subjects in relation to Cash the man and “Cash” the concept, comparing and contrasting the two when appropriate. She also places each discussion within the wider context of the country/western genre, American culture, and various subcultures within each.

As Edwards examines the extensive layers of contradiction and paradox to the idea of “Johnny Cash” throughout the book, she focuses on his music and lyrics, but also takes into account and analyzes relevant texts such as biographical material, interviews, music videos, public appearances, and movie roles.  She notes that the contradictory aspects of Cash’s persona are not static and the flux of his image further contributes to its complexity. Cash did not see himself as even necessarily embodying one side of a dichotomy or another. In regards to his staunch US patriotism and seemingly contradictory critiques of US government policy, Cash said, “I am fighting no particular cause ... [A]s the times change, I change”. 

The book’s only potential flaw is an overly academic tone at times (mostly confined to the introduction). The book’s main argument is made explicitly clear in the first few pages and the rest of the book attempts to provide a multitude of evidence to support it. There are a great deal of “I argue that ... ” sentence constructions that occur in groups and grow tiresome quickly. Such constructions do serve a purpose, however, as Edwards uses them to make each of her arguments absolutely clear. In doing so, she also lets readers know from the very beginning that the book is primarily an argument on the image of Johnny Cash in popular culture and is not meant as any sort of biographical work. The book is not interested in who Johnny Cash was as a historical person (which is just as well, as there are a multitude of existing biographies that explore that issue for readers who might prefer a more factually based assessment of Cash’s life and career). 

Instead, the book seeks to explore the following questions: “What does the polyvalent sign ‘Johnny Cash’ signify? Whose interests are served by its different meanings? What is its cultural work?” Edwards’ exploration of these questions through relevant texts is nothing short of fascinating. The book provides in-depth analyses and challenges readers to think critically about “Johnny Cash” (as well as Johnny Cash), a symbol that has been extremely important and influential in pop culture, but one that has not been widely written about as such. Her treatment of the material is such that a reader need not share her enthusiasm for the music of Johnny Cash or necessarily be familiar with his work at all to gain meaningful insights into the complexities of American identity and culture.

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity


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