Johnny Cash: America: A 200 Year Salute in Story and Song

Johnny Cash
America: a 200 Year Salute in Story and Song

Johnny Cash
Ragged Old Flag
US release date: 11 December 2001 (original release: May 1974)

by Mark Desrosiers

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Ragged Old Flag

It’s always easy to blunder into hyperbole when talking about Johnny Cash. The Man in Black has a cool look, godlike voice, and a resonant persona. There’s no doubt that that he’s become one of America’s unique and definitive artists, along with such luminaries as Duke Ellington, William Faulkner, James Brown, Bessie Smith, Katharine Hepburn, and Jackson Pollock. He created something new, a visceral, holy, and violent brand of folk music that passed itself off as “country” when country was busy schlocking things up in Nashville, while folk was the province of hippie bubbleheads. He shot up with Bob Dylan and went shot for shot with George Jones, both literally and metaphorically. He walked his own path, and even though he became a quintessential American singer, his own definition of America transcended ideological and historical boundaries. For example, in his mind, there was no separation of church and state: America was blessed by God. Yet, the pagan gods and spirits of the Native Americans still roamed the land and gave it life. He’s the kind of American that can give props to Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, and Waylon Jennings, while still generating devotion among nineties lefty hipsters.

It’s possible that his unique vision of America came from the socialist roots of his raising, for he grew up on a government-sponsored commune. Dyess, Arkansas, named after Federal Emergency Relief Administration bureaucrat W.R. Dyess, was a cooperative “colony” where busted cotton farmers were resettled on government land — no down payment and free groceries until you had a crop. All the farmers in the colony had a stake in the cannery, the general store, and the cotton gin. Farmers in the program sold their crop communally, thus garnering a better price. And they shared all the profits equally. The Cash family was effectively saved by the federal government, and they learned the value of collective economics, of socialism. When Johnny Cash talks about America, his pride stems not from the myth of rugged individualism, but from the concept of sharing the burden. To him, the federal bureaucracy was nothing less than a hero. He loved his country in a very deep and personal way, because America saved and nurtured his family during a horrible time. Sure, throughout his long and crazy career, he dined with publicans as well as sinners, but he always knew that both were half-holy.

OK, so you’ve got “I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, and Live at Folsom Prison in your brain, and that’s Johnny Cash for you. But really, he was so much more. He was, for example, a master of the concept album. Forget about Genesis and Jethro Tull, this man put out so many concept albums you’d think he was some sort of frustrated epic poet (please spare the Man in White jokes). Leaving aside his three live prison albums (Folsom, San Quentin, and Ostraker) and a handful of soundtrack LP’s, I count at least eleven concept albums in his oeuvre: Songs of Our Soil; Ride This Train; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Mean as Hell; From Sea to Shining Sea; Bitter Tears; Ballads of the True West; The Holy Land; America; Ragged Old Flag and The Junkie and the Juicehead (Minus Me). Of course, some were more “conceptual” than others: Bitter Tears (featuring “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”) was just a well-conceived patriotic protest album, while The Holy Land — biblical-themed tunes strummed into a tape-recorder in Israel — was one of the first self-consciously thematic lo-fi recordings in history. They’re all a bit hard to find, though.

Luckily, Columbia/Legacy has found a way to cloak opportunism with patriotism, and they’ve given Cash fans two concept-album reissues this year: America (1972) and Ragged Old Flag (1974). Both were released during Cash’s “lost years” in the ’70s — when his sales slumped dramatically and he was widely viewed as a has-been. Columbia calls ’em “patriotic classics”, obviously because of the American flags featured on both LP covers (nowadays the American flag will sell anything). But hey, they’re both pretty great albums, relatively unknown to Cash fans, and they serve to reintroduce Cash’s peculiar brand of patriotism to a wider audience.

America: A 200 Year Salute in Story and Song was originally intended as a handful of tunes for the crew of the Apollo 14 mission. I’m not sure why the tunes didn’t end up in space (neither is Cash), but in this context — a historical narrative that links Paul Revere with literal moonwalking — they’re a lot of fun. Don’t take it seriously, though. The “concept” here is (mostly white male) American history, and Cash’s narration is straight out of Schoolhouse Rock. “In April of 1775 / This great nation started coming alive. / Old King George didn’t like it one bit, / So he proceeded to throw him a royal fit”. Et cetera. Didacticism just isn’t Cash’s bag, so you end up keeping your ears alert for ace tunes. And there are some great ones. His instinctive covers of “Remember the Alamo”, “Lorena”, and (especially) “The Battle of New Orleans” are stunning. His wife June Carter provides an excellent manifest-destiny composition called “The Road to Kaintuck”, which is transformed into hard-bitten mythology by Johnny’s strong, battle-scarred voice. “Mister Garfield” is a transcendent ballad about the assassination of President James A. Garfield (our only preacher president), shot by a zealous opportunistic nutcase. Coming only ten years after JFK’s death, it is swollen with the theme of blood, corruption, and tragedy in American political life. I had never heard it before, and its resonance struck me hard, especially when Cash loses control and yells the last few lines: “Mr. Garfield’s been shot down low!”. It definitely deserves a bigger place in the Cash canon. On top of all this, Cash soberly and deeply recites the Gettysburg Address while strumming a guitar — quite a contrast to Abraham Lincoln’s high-pitched voice and distracted audience when the speech was originally delivered.

Cash’s own compositions on the album are also pretty great. The standout is “Big Foot”, about the Battle of Wounded Knee, with a feverish Chief Big Foot shot down and motherless babies crying around him. Just like “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, he is able to combine simple anguish and unflinching stoicism when singing about the Native American experience. On the other hand, “Come Take a Trip in My Airship” is one of the Apollo 14 songs, ’nuff said. Finally, the album ends with “These Are My People”, whose heart-rending melody and chug-a-lug beat helps you forget the schlocky solidarity lyrics. On the whole, the album is a lot of fun, and though there’s no mistaking it for classic Cash, his singular voice and spirit are sustenance enough.

Two years later, he recorded Ragged Old Flag, whose concept centered around an attempt to create an entire album of tunes penned only by himself. In other words, it’s an ace ’70s folk album, much better than his buddy Bob Dylan’s contemporaneous Planet Waves, that’s for sure. When genre-identified country stars like Cash see their sales flagging, it’s much too easy to ignore their work. Country music thrives from simplicity, directness, and resonance. The music ain’t resonant when no one listens. So Ragged Old Flag got shoved aside as another sad example of Cash’s stumbling career. But listen: these songs are great! I really can’t figure how Dylan was able to market horrifying schlock like “Forever Young”, while Cash’s classic “Lonesome to the Bone” remains unknown. If your budget forces you to choose between these too patriotic Cash reissues, definitely spring for Ragged Old Flag. It’s a happy treasure.

The title track, recorded live at the House of Cash, is a real spine-tingler. A seemingly off-the cuff ramble about a town’s tattered flag (“I don’t like to brag, / But we’re mighty proud of that ragged old flag”), which has endured damn near every major military engagement (“She got cut by a sword at Chancellorsville / And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill” etc.), this is patriotism at its best. Sure, as the chorus swells and the horns ring out at the end, you feel manipulated. But it still seems much more honest and sincere than most of the overdetermined mourning and cheerleading that’s cropped up in music the past few months. And of course the holy iconography is pretty cool considering that a very literal ragged new flag from the World Trade Center has become our newest, most potent national symbol.

The rest of the album is typical stripped-down studio Cash, with subtle backing by the Oak Ridge Boys, Earl Scruggs, and Carl Perkins. The accent is on the songwriting, as Cash himself proclaims in the liner notes: “I wrung my mind, I bit the pen and I walked the floor and the songs didn’t want to come. But they finally did, they all came together. So I guess you’d say they are some of my most profound, passing thoughts.” Still, in case you think Dick Cheney could start touting this reissue as exemplary patriotism, think again. “Don’t Go Near the Water” is a sad lament for our polluted rivers, and “King of the Hill” is a righteous evocation of the futility of working-class experience (“You trust in luck till your luck is gone. / You jump right in and you hang right on. / There may be times when you have to kill. / If you wanna be king of the hill”). Dick Curless and Dave Dudley are both momentarily laid waste by “All I Do is Drive”, a trucking song that erases the glamorous mythology of interstate transport and gives us instead the simple refrain “All I do is drive, drive drive, drive drive”. Hell, he even writes another prison classic, “Please Don’t Let Me Out”, about a man who’s spent his life in prison and is deathly afraid of freedom. And in case you forgot that Cash could be Mr. Lovemaker when he chose, “While I’ve Got It on My Mind” is all about one of the simplest pleasures of married life: sex. As a counterweight, we get a happy dose of religion with “Good Morning Friend” and “What On Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake)”.

The album’s centerpiece ain’t the title track, though. It’s “Lonesome to the Bone”, a honky-tonk tale of a man waking up on a park bench, with memories of drunk love mocking him. “The son is roughly risin’ on the roofs of Stagger town. / The time for sweatin’ poison out is just now comin’ round.” Ten years before the Mekons sang about an existential lust hangover in “Chivalry”, Cash wrote this classic as if his life depended on it. Did this really happen to him? Was it just a metaphor? In any case, it’s one of his songwriting peaks. I’m surprised no one’s covered it.

All in all, we get a good glimpse of what Cash was doing during the seventies interregnum, between his sixties greatness and his nineties restoration. Both albums are wonderful, full of energy and enthusiasm. His unique brand of patriotism really seemed to inspire him, just as religion did. Sure, his career may have been hitting the ground, but you’d never know it from listening to these tunes. Obviously he loved singing tunes much more than selling records. Sometimes even cynical reissues are a glorious thing.