Thursday, September 18, 2014
September 18, 2014: Country Music and Society: Johnny Cash and Prison
[As with any longstanding, popular cultural genre, country music has a complex, evolving relationship to American society. In this series, I’ll highlight five ways we can AmericanStudy the genre and those social connections and meanings. I’d love to hear your country connections and analyses for a twangtastic crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the message the Man in Black still has for us—if we can ever start to hear it.
In this very early post on my colleague and friend Ian Williams’ work with prison inmates, I made the case that the incarcerated might well represent the most forgotten or elided American community (and that they’re in that bleak conversation in any case). I wish I could say that anything has changed in the nearly four years since I made that case, but I don’t believe it has; perhaps Orange is the New Black will help produce a seachange in our awareness of and attitudes toward those millions of incarcerated Americans, and perhaps the proposed federal changes in drug-related sentencing will begin to make a dent in those shocking numbers, but as of right now it seems to me that the prison industrial complex is only growing in size and strength.
More than fifty years ago, one of the most iconic 20th century American artists and voices began a career’s worth of efforts to force us to think about the world and life of our prisons. I had some critical things to say about Johnny Cash in Monday’s post, so it’s more than fair that I pay respect here to one of his most impressive and interesting attributes: his consistent attention to that setting and its experiences and communities, from the 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues” through his many prison performances, culminating (but by no means concluding) in the groundbreaking live albums At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969). My fellow AmericanStudier Jonathan Silverman identifies Cash’s trip to Folsom as one of the Nine Choices through which Cash most reflected and influenced American culture, and I would go further: it was one of the most unique and significant moments in any American artistic career.
Or it should been that significant, at least. Forty-five years later, with our collective awareness, understanding, and attitudes toward prisoners seemingly more negative than ever (although studies like this 2002 one give some reason for hope in that regard), I don’t know that Cash’s clear recognition of the shared humanity between himself and those prisoners—and, implicitly but clearly, between those prisoners and every other audience to whom Cash performed—has reached his fellow Americans in any consistent way. That might seem like a given, recognizing prisoners’ humanity—but when I read and hear frequent critiques of prisoner access to exercise and health facilities, to media, to decent food, to liveable conditions, to any of the things that seem to define American life as we generally argue for it, I’m not at all sure that such recognition is widespread. Perhaps we must first, to quote another prison song (sung by a man who did his own time for drug-related offenses), Steve Earle’s “The Truth” (2002), “Admit that what scares you is the me in you.”
Last country connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post, or other country connections you'd highlight?