I Walk the Line and The Genius of Johnny Cash
Rock critic Robert Christgau once wrote that Johnny Cash never wrote a really great song. That statement bothered me. Partly because on one level he was right. Hank Williams and Merle Haggard wrote detailed songs that chronicled Everyman's trials. Johnny Cash didn't. Most of Mr. Cash's songs probably would not have gotten a favorable peer review from a Nashville songwriters group--not enough detail, not realistic enough. (Think about the lyrics of "Folsom Prison Blues" for a moment: Folsom Prison and San Antonio aren't remotely close to each other!)
But I couldn't shake the feeling that "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line" and others were undeniably the BEST country music has to offer! If the Voyager space mission had included a country song (And it SHOULD have!) on its Golden Record, I'm sure it would have chosen a Johnny Cash song, maybe "Ring of Fire," which he didn't write but is very similar to his best compositions.
What makes his best songs so great? (For examples, I'm going to stick with "I Walk the Line" because I was moved to write this blog as I practiced that song this morning. I think it is typical of his music and embodies all that makes Johnny Cash's songs the greatest.)
His songs are incredibly simple. The iconic riff of "I Walk the Line" is about as basic as a country lead line gets. Something similar must of have been played a million times by country guitarists before "I Walk the Line" was released. The lyrics give no detail about the singer or the one he loves--Okay, we know that the singer has eyes :-) The refrain, "Because you're mine, I walk the line" isn't particularly clever--no word play for instance.
The vagueness of the lyrics and the universality of the subject matter (staying true to your loved one despite temptation) allow the listener to insert himself or herself into the song. The riff and refrain are very memorable. The melody is very easily sung.
So far it sounds pretty mediocre. How do we leap a tall building in a single bound and get to "genius"?
"I Walk the Line" and the rest of Mr. Cash's best are the result of genius because he was able to tap into the Aristotelian Ether. In other words, "I Walk the Line" was up there waiting to be discovered, not created: The perfect lead line, the perfect melody, not one note more, not one note less. The perfect words: Too simple to illustrate the details of Everyman's life, but Everyman (and, of course, Everywoman) could easily insert himself or herself into the song. It's hard to articulate the overall effect here, but a listener can feel the perfection.
I Know What You're Going to Say
But it's Johnny F----ing Cash singing the songs. He's the consummate country music singer. No one could put a song across like Johnny Cash!!! He could have sung "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and have had a hit with it! (If you can find a copy of that, I'd love to hear it!)
To Which I Respond
You're right! But...Johnny Cash wrote his songs with every nuance of his voice (a low baritone) in mind. Some might say I'm being a little loosey goosey here with my definition of songwriting, but I think there's a lot to songwriting that can't be captured in notes and words on a page. Also I don't think his songs would be so widely covered if their appeal were just based on his performance. There's something intrinsic to his best songs that can be tapped into by other singers.
I always get my best audience response when I sing Johnny Cash's songs. Thank you Mr. Cash for uncovering those simple, powerful truths and sharing them with the world!