Monday, January 29, 2007

You Tubing: Johnny Cash's prison blues

Who doesn't love this song?

My favorite line: "I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car. They're probably drinking coffee, and smokin' big cigars. Oh I know I had it comin'. I know I can't be free. But those people keep on movin', and that's what tortures me."

Johnny Cash never went to prison himself, but early in his career he realized that prison was a brilliant metaphor for a set of human experiences in a raw, extreme form that are universal, that all of us endure at one time or another. Commenters at YouTube compared Cash's near-glamorization of prisoners and their crimes to modern "thug life" attitudes routinely expressed by rappers. There are songs where that is justified - for example, Cocaine Blues:

But I wonder myself what Cash would have thought about modern thug life musicians? I don't think he'd hold as harsh an opinion as many of their critics. But I think in most of Cash's music about prisons there are a couple of differences with modern thug-life musicians, not the least of which is Cash's sympathy for the prisoners and his focus on remorse ("I know I had it coming") and often Christian redemption. For example, see God's Gonna Cut You Down:

Crime should not be glamorized, just as the crime-reduction value of punishment should not be oversold. But crime and criminals must be humanized - made understandable to the broader public in human terms - in order for the public to consider evidence-based anti-crime proposals instead of fear-generated ones. Art can remind the public that these folks are all somebody's son or daughter, somebody's sibling, cousin, nephew or niece. And that nobody is ever as good as their best act or, just as importantly, as bad as their worst one.

That's what Cash tried to teach through his prison-related art. Now that he is gone, who will pick up that mantle?

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